This song is about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a boxer who spent 19 years in jail for a murder Dylan felt he did not commit.
Carter's case is complex and filled with legal missteps. On June 17, 1966, three white people were gunned down at a bar in Paterson, New Jersey called the Lafayette Grill. Witnesses described two black men as the murderers; police pulled over Carter and his friend John Artis, who were black, but otherwise didn't fit the description of the killers. They were released, and Carter resumed his boxing career, losing a fight on August 6, but two months later he and Artis were charged with the murders.
The case hinged on the testimony of Arthur Bradley and Alfred Bello, two white men with criminal records who claimed they were en route to rob a factory when they witnessed the shooting, and that Carter and Artis were the killers. Carter was sentenced to 30 years to life; Artis got 15 to life; Bradley and Bello got reduced sentences for their crimes.
In prison, Carter worked relentlessly to tell his story in an effort to earn his freedom. Many sympathized with his cause, including a writer who helped him publish his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, which was published in 1974. Carter had a copy sent to Dylan, who read it and took up his cause, writing this song about him and raising money for him on his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
Soon after Carter's book was published, Bradley and Bello changed their stories, claiming they were coerced into their testimony. In 1976, Carter and Artis' convictions were overturned, but months later were again convicted in a second trial. In 1985, the case reached the Supreme Court, and this time Carter and Artis were exonerated for good. Carter died on April 20, 2014 at age 76. His professional boxing record was 27-12-1.
Dylan visited Carter in prison on December 7, 1975 and the next day raised over $100,000 for Carter's defense at a Madison Square Garden concert with his Rolling Thunder Revue, which featured Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack. On January 25, 1976, Dylan and his Revue held another charity concert, Hurricane II, in the Astrodome, where they were joined by Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes.
Dylan wrote this song with Jacques Levy, a noted director of Broadway stage productions who also wrote lyrics, including for The Byrds song "Chestnut Mare
." Levy co-wrote all but two tracks on the Desire
Dylan's sources for the story he tells in the song were Carter's book and news clippings about the case. He took a lot of liberties with the lyrics, including most of the dialogue, which was necessary to make the song scan. Unusually, he used the real names of the people involved:
Patty Valentine, who "sees the bartender in a pool of blood." She was a witness who lived above the bar where the shootings took place. Arthur Bradley and Alfred Bello are also mentioned by name.
Lawyers at Columbia Records made Dylan change some of the lyrics to avoid lawsuits. Originally, he had a section describing Bello and Bradley stealing the possessions of the shooting victims, which they were not accused of.
In 1976, Patty Valentine sued Dylan for defamation, claiming she suffered emotional distress because she was mentioned by name in this song and portrayed as a liar. Dylan countered that his descriptions were accurate, and that one reason he put her in the song is because she has a beautiful name, which he said is "a piece of thread that holds the song together." The case was eventually dismissed.
Scarlet Rivera played the violin on this track. She went on to record a number of albums in Celtic and other styles.
Carter was the subject of the 1999 movie The Hurricane, staring Denzel Washington as the boxer. This song appears in the film.
The song runs 8:33. For the single, the song was split into two parts, with "Hurricane (part 1)," running 3:45 as the A-side, and "Hurricane (part 2)" as the B-side at 4:57. The A-side is the edit commonly played on radio.
After his Rolling Thunder Revue tour ended in 1976, Dylan never again played this song live. When Rubin Carter went back to prison that year, Dylan did not take up his cause.
The line "He ain't no gentleman Jim" is a reference to "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, a white boxer in the 1800s known for his manners.
There have been very few covers of this song. A notable one is by Ani DiFranco, who included it on her 2000 album Swing Set.
This plays in a famous scene in the 1993 movie Dazed And Confused where Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) walks through a pool hall in slow motion (it's era-appropriate - the film is set in 1976). It also shows up in the 2008 Family Guy episode "McStroke."