“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan. Does it matter if it is not totally accurate?

by Tony Attwood

Having been (quite rightly I am sure) called to book over my interpretation of Rita May I approach Hurricane – the next song on the chronological list of Dylan compositionss – and it causes me to pause and consider.  Indeed if I weren’t writing the reviews in chronological order I think I’d most certainly move on and do something else, in order to give myself more time, but thisis where we’ve got to, and I can’t back out now.

What causes me difficulty is that it would appear from a comment made on the site that I got the interpretation of Levy’s intention vis a vis Rita May quite wrong, and I fear I am going to get into deeper water now.

There are two problems.  One is Dylan’s own willingness to bend reality in songs, and the other is the Dylan-Levy collaboration, which I have suggested started out tentatively with Money Blues and then picked up as it went along and was clearly in full swing by the time Hurricane came along.

From what I have read in various commentaries, after Joey, there was a determination to continue with the notion of songs in the “outlaw” mode of writing.   But once again the criticism of the accuracy of Dylan’s outlaw which surfaced with “Only a pawn” and continued through to “Joey” is seen again here.  And again I take it that Jacques Levy wrote the lyrics, and Dylan provided the music, so it is Levy who takes the blame (if we feel that there is blame to be handed out) for not being accurate in a historical sense.

But, a large part of me says, this doesn’t matter at all.  If I look at a picture by any great artist of any person I don’t look and say, “he hasn’t got the nose right” – I take it to be an artistic interpretation of the individual.  Likewise if I look at Picasso’s Guernica I don’t say “what are those horns doing up there top left?” and “what is that light bulb doing there”.  I see it as a staggering symbolic representation of an appalling historic act of barbarism.  I see it as painting and protest; I don’t expect it to be “true”.

So is there a difference between painting as protest and songwriting as protest?  Does a song like Hurricane have to be accurate in a way that Guernica doesn’t, because the arts are of their essence difference?

The answer is, I don’t think so although I am still struggling to write my essay on the notion of protest music, because I can’t get definitions that fit all I want to fit into it.

So all I can do is start with the music – and in terms of performance the version on the album really is something extraordinary; the power, the drive, the energy – Dylan’s vocalisations combined with the most amazing improvised violin counterpart throughout, makes for an utterly remarkable performance.

That the song didn’t translate so well into live concerts is well attested – indeed it stayed on the repertoire for just three months, garnering 33 performances, and then it was dropped totally.

But aside from the sheer drive and energy of the song, we are also transported along by the uncertainty of where we are – a feeling that is perfect for the lyrics.

We start with a minor (Am) and shift to F – back and forth back and forth for four lines of power, drive and uncertainty, until we get to the chorus where are rocking instead from C to F major before chords tumble over each other as we have the last line of the chorus, “Put in a prison cell but one time he could have been the champion of the world”.

But my question remains: as for what Levy and Dylan wrote (and as I say I am taking it that Levy wrote the lyrics) does it matter that there might be variations from the truth therein?  I am not going through these “variations” simply because people who know about such things have done it in much greater depth – from Clinton Heylin through to the web site “Hurricane Carter, the other side of the story” which has the headline “Dylan’s distortion of the facts in Hurricane is appalling, irresponsible and wrong.”

So, for a moment, let’s leave aside the argument about accuracy, and instead ponder the issue from the other side, not starting with the event portrayed, but with the artist.  A songwriter writes songs about imginary, half imaginary and real situations.  But in such an art form the real life situation is distorted, changed, altered.  Does it stop being art and becomes simply a lie?

We are quite clear in the song that it is about Rubin Hurricane Carter, and we know that all his life Dylan has been a great boxing fan.  Indeed we recently published on the “Untold Dylan” Facebook group a picture of Dylan with Mohammed Ali.   We know Dylan often takes the side of the oppressed and the underdog, so it is not surprising that Dylan takes the view that there was racism in the legal case which led to a false trial and ultimately a false conviction.

We also know Dylan met Rubin Carter in Rahway State Prison in Woodbridge Township, New Jersey which reveals a considerable closeness to the issue – it wasn’t just something that he picked up on, along the way and then dropped.  And we know about the fund raising concerts.

But what happened?  Why are the details open to debate?

I think the answer is found in a Heylin quote of Levy as saying that,”I think the first step was putting the song in a total storytelling mode, I don’t remember whose idea it was to do that. But really, the beginning of the song is like stage directions, like what you would read in a script: ‘Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night…. Here comes the story of the Hurricane.’ Boom! Titles. You know, Bob loves movies, and he can write these movies that take place in eight to ten minutes, yet seem as full or fuller than regular movies”.

Now the reality is, all of us are used to films of life stories being inaccurate – they have to be in order to become watchable movies, because the reduction of the events of maybe 30, 50 or even 70 years to two hours means a lot is cut.  Indeed when I watched the movie of Stephen Hawking’s life last year I found myself completely swept along by the tale, absorbing it, enjoying it, while also knowing perfectly well (because I’ve read a lot about Hawking and his work) that this was a massive contraction of all sorts of issues, and in some ways almost a parody of his work.

So here’s my next thought: we accept the absolute contraction of people’s lives when a film is made about them, so what is wrong with this in the case of a song?  The argument could be that a song is far too short a medium to reflect something as complex as this… but surely it is no more contracted than putting a whole life into two hours?

The song itself was not without problems particularly in reference to Bello and Bradley and a second version had to be recorded some months later to avoid possible law suits.  There was still one legal case however, but Dylan and co won that.   

Now let me try another approach.  The song suggests that Hurricane could have been the champion of the world, whereas apparently Rubin Carter was ranked ninth in the world at the time of the arrest.  Do we allow that variation without comment?

Indeed do we call it “poetic licence” (which the Oxford Dictionaries define as The freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect)?   It is a phrase that has been with us since the 18th century, so we’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea – and indeed I think as a culture we are totally used to and accepting of the concept – except when it doesn’t suit us to be.

Thus if an artist in any form uses poetic licence to change a description of reality in a way we don’t like – we get angry and protest.  If he/she does it in a way that makes a point we approve of, we are happy.  

Ultimately poetic licence can go too far however and the resultant artwork becomes a parody of the facts of the case – but even here what we believe distorts our view.   Indeed as Picasso said in 1948, in Russia they hated his work and loved his politics, whereas in the US the situation was reversed. Picasso commented “I’m hated everywhere. I like it that way.”  Our view of the world and our prejudice determines everything – especially how we see art.

The comment takes me back to Abraham Lincoln’s comment “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Which of course Dylan turned into..

Half the people can be part right all of the time,
And some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all the people can’t be all right all of the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.”
I said that.

Which of course is saying not just my dream, but my vision, my view of reality…  You can tell how important I think that phrase is because it is has been on the home page of this site for quite a few years now.

Such comments develop a similar theme – which come down to the fact that you can put your ideas across with artistic licence if you want to, and if you want to share that vision with me, that’s great.  And in the end that is what poets and artists do.

Eventually it was ruled in 1985 that Carter had not received a fair trial and Carter was released.  In 1988 the prosecution said they would not seek another trial and the case came to an end.    But the arguments went on, with those against the version portrayed in Hurricane saying there is no mention of the boxer’s criminal past and a reputation for a violent temper continued their arguments.   But then this is art – art doesn’t have to be accurate.  If you write a love poem you mention the beauty, not the clicky knee.  If you write a defence, you emphasize everything in the defendant’s favour.  To move away from all this would move us away from all poetry, and all art.

But there is one more thing that I want to mention about this song.  What we do get in this work is something that we don’t see too often in Dylan – an onrushing never stopping full speed story line, from the opening

Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall

onwards to

Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see
And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously

Meanwhile, far away in another part of town
Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin’ around

What I think I feel, as I try to step back from a set of lyrics I know by heart is just how this is all storyline, and no reflection…

He said, “I saw two men runnin’ out, they looked like middleweights
They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates”

And every line adds more to the tale

Four in the morning and they haul Rubin in
Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye
Says, “What you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!”

In fact some of the terminology is straight out of a novel

Four months later, the ghettos are in flame
Rubin’s in South America, fightin’ for his name

And so it continues to the ultimate protest about the innocent suffering

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell

It is a phenomenally hard thing to pull off – to keep the format of the song, but having it streaming forwards with the storyline coherent and driving.

In the end I do think poetic licence allows the artist to emphasise one approach against another without setting out the evidence, and without any attempt to consider opposing views.  My view, for what it is worth, is that people who argue to the contrary, fail to understand the nature of poetry.

As Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”   And as Plato said in the Republic, ” We are, at all events, aware that such poetry mustn’t be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth…”




  1. I think we’re misled into too literal a reading that necessitates “Rita Mae” is about a person (lesbian intellectual, author etc.) of that name! The syllables scan nicely — and if we were looking for a ‘real’ candidate for a female foil that Dylan in summer 75 found both irresistible and a baffling, elusive mirror image — I suggest we consider Patti Smith. Just a thought.

  2. The notion that Hurricane doesn’t translate well live has one massive exception: the performance from the rolling thunder review (collected on the bootleg series album from that tour) which has Joan Baez singing with Dylan, who is in astounding vocal form and Scarlet River on the violin. It’s one of the finest live performances I’ve ever heard.

  3. I remember Simon Schama talking about the painting Death of Marat by David once on tv and commenting that ultimately the painting failed because it was a lie, a piece of propaganda. I loved that painting and specifically went to see it a few times but felt that what he said was true. It has a falseness which undermines its ability to sincerely touch the emotions. Hurricane is the same. It is a brilliant song, it flies along and one of the easiest of Dylans songs to remember every word. The problem is that Carter was an awful man and it is hard for the song to get past that, no matter how good it is.

    Dylan is at his best when he genuinely feels the issue and the passion and sincerity that flows from that is overwhelming but he is also naive at times and that is the case here. He feels the passion but unfortunately it is misplaced and is so far from the truth that it is somewhat of an embarrassment.

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