Rubin Carter: How Bob Dylan Joined His Cause

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post, April 21, 2014

Bob Dylan visiting Rubin Carter

Bob Dylan visiting Rubin Carter, 1975

“No one doubted that he pulled the trigger
And though they could not produce the gun
The DA said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed.”
– Bob Dylan, Hurricane, 1975

Bob Dylan found fame at the beginning of the Sixties as a protest folksinger. Between January 1962 and November 1963, he recorded an entire oeuvre of songs that voiced the anger of his generation. His poignant ballads explored the injustices of America, whether the horrors of segregation in songs like Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, and Only a Pawn in in Their Game, or the pains of war in A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, With God on Our Side, and Masters of War.

Yet, by the mid-Sixties – having established himself as a popular protest singer – Dylan quickly stripped himself of the title, famously recording Maggie’s Farm in 1965. This song was a pun on Silas McGee’s Farm, where he had performed at a civil rights protest in 1963. Now the young folksinger from Minnesota was re-casting himself as the pawn in an oppressive folk protest scene, singing a protest against protest folk music: “Well, I try my best, To be just like I am, But everybody wants you, To be just like them. They say sing while you slave and I just get bored, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

The song marked Dylan’s transition from folk singer to innovative rock musician, and it was not until a decade later, in 1975, after coming across the case of Rubin Carter, that Dylan would again be proclaimed as a protest singer.

June 16, 1967, three white people were brutally shot dead at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey. A short while later, local boxer Rubin Carter and his friend John Artis were stopped in their white Dodge car by the police. They brought the two men to the nearby hospital where one of the shooting victims lay dying in the hospital bed. The police hoped that the victim might be able to identify the two men as the perpetrators of the shooting, but neither man could be identified.

The grand jury who were investigating the murders at Lafayette refused to indict Carter and Artis. However, three months later, a man called Alfred Bello told prosecutors that he could identify two black men as the murderers. A career criminal, Bello had been loitering in the area on the night of the killing, attempting to burgle a factory. Hoping for leniency from the police, he and his accomplice Arthur Dextor Bradley testified against Carter. Bello then subsequently also identified Artis. He claimed that he had been walking towards the Lafayette, when two black males walked towards him carrying guns, at which point he ran away, as the two men got into a parked white car.

On May 27, 1967, despite no motive being offered by prosecutors for the crime, Carter and Artis were convicted by an all-white jury of three counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, despite prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

In his eighth year of being incarcerated, Carter wrote an autobiography, entitled: The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472. That same year, from his prison cell, Carter sent a copy of his book to Bob Dylan. Within the next few weeks, Dylan had visited Carter in prison. Afterwards he commented on his meeting with Carter to ajournalist: “The first time I saw him, I left knowing one thing… I realised that the man’s philosophy and my philosophy were running down the same road, and you don’t meet too many people like that.”

During this period, Dylan was beginning to explore a new musical avenue. Indeed, for the first time in his career, he was co-writing songs with producer, Jacques Levy. The two men were composing songs for the album that would eventually become Desire. Very early on during their collaboration, the two men wrote Hurricane” about Carter’s conviction. The song combined Dylan’s fury, whilst narrating Carter’s conviction (with some artistic licence). Dylan was forced to re-record the song with altered lyrics, after lawyers for his record label, Columbia, argued his line about Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley having “robbed the bodies” could result in a lawsuit. The final version released was an eight minute tale of injustice delivered with absolute fury. It proved to be one of Dylan’s most successful singles of the decade, reaching number 33 on the Billboard chart.

By the fall of 1975, Dylan went on tour. At the time he was performing with the Rolling Thunder Revue, which consisted of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Allen Ginsberg. On the 7th December, the tour performed at Carter’s prison in New Jersey as a show of support for the boxer. The following evening, the Revue played to a sold-out audience in Madison Square Garden, which collected more than $100,000 for Carter’s legal fund.

A month later, Dylan led another charity concert for the imprisoned boxer, called Hurricane II, which was held at Houstons’ Astrodome. Performers included Carlos Santana, Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder and Richie Havens among others.

Dylan’s song and his persistent campaigning for Carter during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour meant that Carter’s case was brought to the attention of mainstream America. Just two months after the Hurricane II show the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the Lafayette convictions, ruling that the trial’s prosecution withheld evidence favourable to the defendants. A new trial was ordered. However, both Carter and Artis were convicted again in 1976, after prosecutors introduced the motive that the two men had retaliated and killed three white people because a black man had been shot dead in a black bar in Paterson earlier that night by a white man.

Carter’s conviction was overturned eight years later. Aged 48 years old, he was freed without bail in November 1985. He had spent 19 years behind bars. The federal district court judge in Newark, New Jersey, H. Lee Sarokin, on overturning Carter’s conviction, said: “The extensive record clearly demonstrates that the petitioners’ convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who spent 19 years behind bars, died in his sleep on Sunday April 20, 2014.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s