Say “protest singer”, and many people think Bob Dylan. But Dylan wrote most of the songs that gave him that moniker in a brief period of just more than 20 months in the early 1960s.
He released The Death of Emmett Till, his first protest song, in January 1962. But by the time the album The Times They Are-a Changin’, which dealt with issues of racism, civil rights, war and poverty, was released in January 1964, Dylan had already rejected the mantle. It was a cloth that chafed him.
“Me, I don’t want to write for people any more – you know, be a spokesman,” Dylan told critic Nat Hentoff a few months after the release of his third album. “From now on, I want to write from inside me … I’m not part of no movement.”
Yet Dylan’s protest classic Blowin’ in the Wind captured a generation. “Millions of Americans learned the words and sang along while it was played on the radio, performed at rallies and concerts, and sung at summer camps and in churches and synagogues,” wrote academic Peter Dreier.
It’s perhaps better to describe Dylan as a political artist rather than a protest singer. And although he was nobody’s show pony, he also wrote powerful political songs after 1964, including Hurricane. The ballad chronicles the racial profiling of African-American light heavyweight boxer Rubin “the Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted of murder. He was released in 1985, after spending nearly 20 years behind bars. Part of Dylan’s incredible album Desire (1976), the eight-minute-long track is one of his cinematic-style story songs.
The opening scene is extraordinary:
Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, “My God, they killed them all!”
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world
Dylan wrote Hurricane after reading Carter’s autobiography and then visiting him in prison. He ends the song with these prophetic words:
An innocent man in a living hell
That’s the story of the Hurricane
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done
Carter obviously never got his time back, but his name was cleared. On his release, the judge ruled that the boxer didn’t receive a fair trial and overturned the murder conviction. He said the conviction was based on “racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure”.
Carter served as executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted from 1992 to 2005, and died in 2014. One of his defence lawyers, Geoffrey Robertson, said Carter’s case was a “miscarriage of justice by prosecutors who had evidence of his innocence and demonised him for his black power activism in front of small-town white jurors”.
Whether Dylan’s song and the 1999 film Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington in the title role, had anything to do with Carter finally getting justice is unlikely, but it certainly helped publicise his plight.
Art can, at the very least, help conscientise people in times of injustice – even if the protest artist ultimately rejects the title.