The Winter Dance Party Tragedy: How the Death of an Era Birthed American Pie

We all know the song; we all sang to it; but do we all know the story behind it? American Pie is one of the most debatable songs released in the history of the 20th century. Written by Don McLean and released in 1971, American Pie’s elegiac composition had become a staple of American music shortly after its release. Decades later, the song still remains all the more relevant and holds multiple timeless interpretations of society. American Pie was not just a hit that came out of nowhere. The single starts with a reference to one of the biggest tragedies in music history; a plane crash that killed the biggest stars of American rock & roll in the late 50s, The Winter Dance Party Tragedy. Who were the men lost in the accident? How did they inspire Mclean, and what other subliminal messages were left for us to decipher in the 8-minute American single?

A Day That Ended in Tragedy

February 3, 1959, is a day that ended in tragedy for the biggest names in the music business in the late 50s: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. The three were rock & roll’s greatest stars at the time.


Buddy Holly had music that would lift you up off your seat and fill you with joy, Ritchie Valens was a young rising star who seemed to come out of nowhere with some of history’s most timeless hits, and The Big Bopper’s humorous and fun folk music made for the perfect winter tour destined for the three stars to partake in.

The Winter Dance Party

The Winter Dance Party was a three-week tour through the heart of the West. Buddy Holly and the gang would set out on a bus tour through the most freezing part of America in the coldest months of the year. No one would have thought that such a great spirited winter tour could end in such tragedy.


In honor of the integrity of rock & roll, we will first look into the lives lost on “The Day the Music Died.” Rock & roll came into the music scene in the year 1954 with Bill Haley & the Comets and Elvis Presley. It was a fusion of white country swing and black rhythm and blues that ignited teen spirit across America.

A Rapid Rise to Stardom

Buddy Holly was inspired by the style of Elvis and the energy he was able to bring to the television. It was that inspiration that would guide Buddy’s career of being a star. Buddy Holly was born on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas. The young Buddy Holly lived for music and by the mid-1950s, he was already starting to become a teenage rock & roll prodigy who was very anxious to make his mark.


Buddy Holly had a brother, Travis Holley, who was quoted on the show “Behind the Music” as saying that Buddy became very impatient with regards to other young men his age breaking into the music scene. Buddy knew that he was “better” then they were.

Forming a Band

Buddy Holly formed a band with his friends Jerry Alison, Nickie Sullivan, and Joe B Mauldin. The three called themselves “The Crickets.” The group came together in 1957 and before the end of the year, Buddy Holly would become a star. By September 1957, their song “That’ll be the Day” (referencing John Wayne) became the number 3 song in America. Months later, The Crickets scored another big hit with a song named after drummer Gerry Alison’s girlfriend, Peggy Sue Gerron.


The band would go on to take their two hits and play on tour with some of rock & roll’s biggest names of the time: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Eddie Cochran. The tour was long and grueling, and by the time it was over, Nickie Sullivan had quit the Crickets, saying that the tour took more out of him than anything he has ever done in his entire life.

Touring with the Biggest

Travis Holly said of Buddy, in regards to his lack of being able to sit back and enjoy, that “he acted like he didn’t have enough time to do what he wanted to do; I don’t know if he thought his life would be cut shorter, or his career would be cut shorter.”


Buddy Holly’s career started coming to a standstill as he was beginning to lose his winning streak of making it to the top three spots on the charts, although he had a lot of money in publishing rights, he had no cash in his pocket. Buddy decided that going on tour would be the best way to make some extra cash. According to Don McLean, he was “forced” to go on a tour he did not really want to go on, in the worst season of the year in order to take care of his family.

The New Faces of ’58

As Buddy Holly’s popularity was starting to fall back, two new rising stars would begin to make their way into the limelight; Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The two young stars were loved and adored by America and had their own unique styles that would bode well with Holly on tour.


The Big Bopper was the stage name of musician J.P. Richardson, a Beaumont, Texas disk jockey who had a love for music and a talent for very funny ad-libs, and a great ability to write songs. He was born in Sabine Pass, Texas, by the name of Jiles Perry Richardson on October 12, 1930. He was the eldest son of an oil field worker and grew up very poor.

Making Ends Meet

A big motivation for going into the music industry came from Bopper’s history of poverty. In the 1950s, he was struggling to make a living. At the time, he was working in the radio industry, but still not making ends meet. So, he decided to take on the performance industry as well. He was a big man with a great sense of humor. So he figured he could be something.


His songs like “Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor” made no sense but a lot of money. His songs were hitting the top of the charts. The last thing left to do was to tour and promote the album. So in December of 1958, Bopper was booked for the Winter Dance Party Tour.

The Youngest Star on the Tour

At just 17 years old, Ritchie Valens was the youngest star on the Winter Dance Party Tour. It would be the high point of the career of a young star who was just starting to take off. Ritchie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13th, 1931 in California. His father passed away when he was only ten years old, leaving his family in poverty. Valens had started playing the guitar as a young boy, and by the time he was in his teens, he already had a fan base.


Valens’ energy on stage attracted the attention of record producer Bob Keen. He said that Richard was a kind of “bull-like” guy standing up there with his guitar on an old beat-up amp and was just really “cooked” with stage presence.

Come on Let’s Go

When Bob had signed Richard, he had wanted to avoid using his true last name for fear of bigotry to his Latin roots, so he changed his stage name to Ritchie Valens. Valens released his first record “Come on Let’s Go” by summer of 1958. By autumn that year, it had reached 47 on the top 100 chart. His biggest hit would come next; a song dedicated to his high school sweetheart called “Donna.”


On the other side of the record was a popular song. The timeless single “La Bamba” had teens dancing in their bedrooms with joy across America. Just seven months after his discovery in the music business, Valens was booked to tour with the Winter Dance Party.

The Beginning of the End

The Winter Dance Party was a three-week jaunt through the heart of the Midwest; the part of America that literally freezes over during February. Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, Frankie Sardo, Deon, the Bellmonts, and Buddy Holly. Along with three new sidekicks Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Charlie Bunch. Buddy Holly had put together his band just weeks before the tour and told Waylon Jennings that he had two weeks to learn to play bass.


Little did they know that this would be the least of their problems and how cold of a winter they would have to endure. According to Tommy Allsup, the winter was “cold, cold,” and he could not wrap his mind around who in their right mind would want to book a tour in such cold weather.

A Plan to Get Ahead

The tour bus had frozen many times going down the road, at 40 degrees below freezing temperatures. It was so bad that the drummer’s feet froze on the bus and were frostbitten. The team of artists was scheduled to endure this torture for a 21-day tour! On the 11th day of the tour, the band (after already going back and forth around the region in the frigid cold weather) had been booked to play in Clear Water, Iowa.


Big Bopper by then had been running a fever, and the whole band was becoming tired. Buddy had scheduled a small charter plane to take him and his band to Fargo, North Dakota with him after the show. Buddy was desperate to get ahead and maybe “do some laundry” before his next gig.

The Surf Ballroom

When the band had arrived at the surf ballroom, a line had stretched all the way down the street. Parents and children were pouring in to buy tickets, and the whole venue had instantly filled up. The Winter Dance Party was the biggest tour to ever arrive in the small town in Northeast Iowa. No one had ever seen stars so prominent in their entire life.


The Big Bopper came out and opened with his classic “Hello Baby” routine and had the crowd laughing. Then came Ritchie Valens to play “Donna,” and then came Buddy Holly. Although they had not known it yet, it would be the last night they would all be together.

Then, when the curtain would come down, they would have to make their next move…

Rushing to Catch the Next Flight

Once the curtain came down, it would be Buddy, Waylon, and Tommy, who were supposed to get on a flight to Fargo, North Dakota. However, Big Bopper was still very ill and made a deal with Waylon Jennings to switch places on the plane. Tommy had run into Ritchie Valens, and the two had done a coin toss to decide who would be the third man to get on the small plane. It would be the last time they saw each other.


It was just past midnight, as Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens climbed into the three seats of the small four-seater beach craft bonanza plane. Shortly after takeoff, the plane had disappeared into the night and crashed.

A Pilot Error

The cause of the flight was listed as “Pilot Error” but many suspect it was the extreme snowstorm that hit the plane after takeoff that took it down. All four passengers died instantly, marking the end of an era. Decades later, the tragedy and everything that was involved would inspire an Anthem that pays tribute to the three musicians and pays homage to American culture.


Many were worried that the deaths of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens would create the death of rock & roll, too. There weren’t really any young musicians that could compare to them. Elvis was in the army at the time and Bob Dylan was only catering to the folk side of the genre.


It was not until the Beatles touched down in the United States that anyone would get a taste of that same rock & roll fever. Just as the summer of love had come to a close and the 70s were beginning, Don McLean released American Pie – his anthem and ode to the past 20 years of rock & roll, and how he saw the state of the union. Don McLean’s American Pie was his nostalgic shout out to his childhood in the 1950s. In his first verse, “A long, long time ago” refers to the 1950s that seemed like forever ago because of all of the turmoil of the 60s.


I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.” Mclean’s favorite music came from the 50s. “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while.” A significant dream for Mclean at the time was to be a musician.

Tribute to the Winter Dance Tour

But February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.” Don McLean was a huge fan of Buddy Holly as a child. He looked up and admired Buddy, and wanted to be just like him. At the time of the crash, McLean was a paperboy and said he had shown up early that morning to pick up the papers for his route and ended up feeling like he had been punched in the gut.


I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside the day the music died.” These few lyrics at the end of the first verse shocked Americans and brought them to tears.

Ode to Folk Classics

It had already been more than a decade since the crash, yet it still held a place in the hearts of many Americans. McLean opened with what he saw as the ironic beginning of rock & roll after a tragic end to its forefathers. “Did you write the book of love, and do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so? Now, do you believe in rock & roll?


McLean pays his respects here to the writing of “The book of Love,” a song written by the Monotones in 1968, and “The Bible Tells Me So” by Don Cornell. He then goes on to give more tribute to the dancing and love culture he had experienced as a boy, dancing in the gym listening to the songs like the “Book of Love,” and “A White Sport Coat.”


However, he is singing this verse very ironically, and almost sarcastically, considering the institutionalized racism and disenfranchisement in American culture at that time. McLean then jumps a year forward in time to mention 1969. “Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own and moss grows fat on a rolling stone but, that’s not how it used to be.”


Don is saying that the “simple days” of a high school dance and bible studies have been replaced with complex figures and power struggles that guide the evolution of music over the next decade.

When the jester sang for the king and queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean, and a voice that came from you and me.” The “jester” lyric is the figure that dominates this verse. Many believe the jester to be a reference to Bob Dylan. The jester is Bob Dylan.

The Court Room was Adjourned

if Bob Dylan was the jester, then the king is Peter Seger, and the queen is Joan Baez. These were the two big names in folk at the time the early ’60’s. During the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Dylan was honored to play his own set and then collaborate with these two legends to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”


Oh, and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown, the courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned.” These are verses with a bit of a biblical allegory to them. The crown of thorns is what Jesus of Nazareth wore on his crucifixion in the second testament. McLean was referring to Elvis Presley losing his crown to Bob Dylan.

The Book of Marx

And while Lennon read a book of Marx.” This is about the Beatles’ music becoming political. Songs like “Revolution” (1968), which actually mentions Chairman Mao, were much different than “Love Me Do” (1963). Many American adults thought the Beatles were a bad influence for the American youth, especially after John Lennon’s remark in 1966 about Christianity, saying “Christianity will go.”


“It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right, and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first: rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

The reference to Kennedy:

The quartet practiced in the park, and we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.” The quartet was the Beatles practicing in Candlestick Park, the place of their last concert. A dirge is a funeral song. These songs were for the Kennedys (John and Robert) and Martin Luther King, all who died in the mid-’60s.

Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter in a summer swelter, the birds flew off with a fallout shelter, Eight miles high, and falling fast.” Helter Skelter is an obvious reference to the Manson murders of 1969. The Byrds were a popular folk-rock group. One of the band members was arrested for possession of marijuana, and a fallout shelter was another name for a rehab program.


Back to the Jester:

It landed foul on the grass, the players tried a forward pass, with the jester on the sidelines in a cast.” Jester in the cast is another reference to the shift in politics from Bob Dylan during the mid-60s. In 1966, Dylan got into a motorcycle accident and wound up on the sidelines for a while wearing a cast.

Back to the Beatles

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume, while sergeants played a marching tune. We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance.” This is a clear homage to the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band album that came at the same time Dylan was on hiatus. The verse also carries a double meaning, referencing the young soldiers sent to Vietnam who did not get a chance to live.


Swing Back to Buddy:

Do you recall what was revealed the day that music died?” He then closes the verse by giving you a second perspective on what happened to Buddy Holly the day the plane crashed. Holly was forced along with the rest of his crew into a situation they did not want to be in. The corporate machine sent them on a winter nightmare. He was shining a light on what lied between the surface; just like the reality behind the facade of the happy, peaceful music of the 60s.


Two years after Woodstock, The Altamont Speedway Festival was launched in an attempt to recapture the experience of the summer of love. The concert turned out to be a disaster, and the massive crowd was drunken and disorderly. So, too, were the Hell’s Angels Biker gang who were for some reason hired for security. The lyrics “…so come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” (a reference to the Rolling Stones’ song “Jumpin Jack,) because “fire is the devil’s only friend.”


The Altamont Music Festival was notable for McLean to reference. If the February plane crash was the physical representation of the day the music died, then Altamont was a metaphoric death of a peaceful musical society. The fans in Altamont were exercising privilege, violence and substance abuse. And it was complete havoc.

A Girl Who Sang the Blues

I met a girl who sang the blues, and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.” The girl who sang the blues was at the time the late Janice Joplin, whom the rock & roll community admired very much. With Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, and many more, rock and roll seemed to be losing a different beloved star every day, and something needed to be said about it.


And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast. The day the music died.”

Just like this article, the song starts with the mention of the Winter Dance Festival tragedy and ends with it as well. The father, son, and holy ghost reference the crash again. The Father being The Big Bopper, the son being Ritchie Valens, and the holy ghost being Buddy Holly. Their last train for the coast references the coast being paradise, and the train being the plane on the day the three men perished.

One Last Chorus

The one last chorus is the final chorus and goes like all the rest, in an almost condescending consistent manner each time it is sung. The chorus disguises itself as wishing for the return of the good old days, even though there were never any good old days; there was always bad, and there was always good to humor the bad. Young boys are drinking, knowing they can die one day, and the levy being dried of its resources; we are saying goodbye to the American pie illusion, and accepting reality for what it is.


If you got to this point, I think it’s safe to say that you like the song American Pie or simply like to go on a deep dive into the history of very popular and important songs. That said, you should really like this next one…

A Hurricane is Born

Ask any avid Bob Dylan fan what their favorite Dylan songs are, and chances are “Hurricane” will be named. The song was recorded back in October 1975 and released as the opening track of the 1976 hit album “Desire,” which was Dylan’s 17th released album. It tells the infamous story of the middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was convicted of murder in 1967 and incarcerated for almost 20 years. To celebrate the release date of this incredible, iconic album, we will uncover the full story of “Hurricane.”

Rubin Carter was born in Clifton, New Jersey, in 1937 and was the fourth of seven children. Following time spent serving the US Army in West Germany, during which he began to box, he was discharged in 1956 and arrested shortly after for two muggings.

Source: YouTube

He was convicted and sent to prison, where he stayed until 1961. On his release, Carter started boxing professionally. And at 5 foot 8 inches, he was shorter than the average middleweight boxer, but his aggressive style and punching power resulted in various early-stage knockouts and earned him the nickname “Hurricane.”

Rise to Fame

People began to take notice of the small boxer from New Jersey, especially after he defeated a number of middleweight champions. By the end of 1965, boxing magazine The Ring ranked him as the fifth-best middleweight boxer in the world. However, shortly after, his ranking began to decline as he lost an increasing number of fights. By the end of his career, out of a total of 40 fights, Carter had won 27, lost 12 and drawn once, chalking up a total of 19 knockouts (with 11 being total knockouts).


At approximately 2:30 a.m. on 17 June 1966, two men walked into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, and began shooting. The bartender and one customer were killed immediately, and another customer died from severe injuries around a month later. Rubin Carter and a man named John Artis were arrested by police after eyewitnesses described the attackers as two black men driving a car similar to Carter’s. The following year, after being tried and convicted, both Carter and Artis were found guilty of the murders, which were widely reported as being racially motivated.

Rubin’s Plight

After being sentenced to life in prison for multiple murders and incarcerated in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, Carter continued to profess his innocence. Written from prison and first published in 1974, his autobiography titled The Sixteenth Round documents Carter’s tumultuous journey from the boxing ring to solitary confinement, maintaining that he had nothing to do with the 1966 triple murder. Copies were sent to numerous celebrities in hopes of drawing attention to the cause in a new campaign for his release. And Bob Dylan received a copy because of his prior commitment to the civil rights struggle in America.


After reading The Sixteenth Round during a trip to France, influential American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan decided to visit Carter in prison. The two reportedly had an instant rapport and spent a total of two hours together, with Dylan taking notes on what Carter said. According to Carter, “We sat and talked for many, many hours, and I recognized the fact that here was a brother.” Dylan couldn’t have agreed more: “I realized that the man’s philosophy and my philosophy were running down the same road, and you don’t meet too many people like that.”

Why Did Dylan Take on Carter’s Story?

For all of his life, Dylan was a boxing fan – there are even published pictures of him with Muhammed Ali. For this reason, it’s likely that he would have followed Carter’s career and success within the ring long before the triple murder in 1966 and, therefore, had some previous affiliation with the sportsman. Additionally, evident in his musical work, Dylan often took the side of the oppressed, frequently favoring the “underdog.” It is, therefore, unsurprising that Dylan read The Sixteenth Round and took the perspective that the legal case was tainted by racism, which ultimately led to an unfair trial and a false conviction.


After meeting with Carter at Rahway State Prison, Dylan decided to document the story of the “Hurricane” in musical form and set about creating a song. According to reports, however, he was unable to find the right lyrics to express Carter’s story in the way that he desired.

As a result, he contacted stage director and lyricist Jacques Levy and asked for assistance. Little did he know then that Levy would be the man with whom Dylan would end up co-writing his 1976 hit album “Desire.”

Levy, Dylan and “Hurricane”

Levy’s background in musical theatre was exactly what Dylan needed to perfect “Hurricane.” “The first step was putting the song in a total storyteller mode,” said Levy about the song. “…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 as or fuller than regular movies.”


Dylan sourced the story told in the song from Carter’s autobiography and various news clippings and reports about the case. He had a personal willingness to bend reality in his songs, and “Hurricane” was no exception – he took many liberties with the lyrics, including most of the dialogue. However, if we are to assume Levy wrote the lyrics while Dylan provided the lyrics and the voice, and if blame is to be attributed, Levy would have to take responsibility for the historical inaccuracies. Arguably, though, this could be put down to “poetic license.”

Building Momentum: Anticipating the Hurricane

Having been finalized with the help of Levy, “Hurricane”, which lasts a total of 8 minutes 33 seconds, was publicly debuted on September 10, 1975, during Dylan’s performance on the PBS broadcast The World of John Hammond. It was then officially recorded in the studio on October 24 and released quickly as a single in November, making it the opening track of the album “Desire.” It was due to be released the following January. The “Hurricane” roadshow, which featured an all-star ensemble of musicians, served as a platform for a campaign for Carter’s release.

Dylan with Rubin ”Hurricane” Carter (2013). Source:

In his introduction to “Hurricane”, Dylan says to the audience, “We gotta get this man out of jail.” Touring across New England and Canada at the end of 1975, with Carter’s retrial as one of his main objectives. Dylan played a total of 31 shows, ending the tour at Madison Square Garden on 8 December with a benefit called “Night of The Hurricane.” Guests included Roberta Flack (who replaced Aretha Franklin, a last-minute cancelation), and Heavyweight Champion of the World Muhammed Ali, who called Carter in his jail cell while he was on stage.

The Re-Write

Controversially, Dylan used the real names of the people involved in the story: Patty Valentine, Arthur Bradley and Alfred Bello – the three witnesses. As a result, in 1976, Valentine sued Dylan for defamation, claiming she suffered emotional distress due to being portrayed as a liar. Dylan countered that his descriptions were accurate, saying her “beautiful” name was “a piece of thread that holds the song together.” The case was eventually dismissed. Additionally, Bradley and Bello were described stealing the possessions of the shooting victims, which they were not accused of. Lawyers at Columbia Records made Dylan change some of the lyrics to avoid lawsuits.

1966, Rubin Carter at the Lafayette Bar, Paterson, New Jersey. Source: Pinterest

The song was split into two parts, with “Hurricane (part 1)” running as the A-side for 3 minutes 45 seconds and “Hurricane (part 2)” running as the B-side at 4 minutes 47 seconds. The A-side became the edit most commonly played on the radio, as it was a more manageable length to play on air. The opening verse sets the scene immediately and introduces the story that is about to be told:

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

Incrimination in the Second Verse

The second verse introduces Bello and insinuates that he was committing a crime of his own after the murder had taken place – lyrics Dylan was forced to later change. The use of dialogue compliments the narrative and continues the tale in a story-like fashion:

Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see
And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously
I didn’t do it, he says, and he throws up his hands
I was only robbin’ the register, I hope you understand
I saw them leavin’, he says, and he stops
One of us had better call up the cops
And so Patty calls the cops
And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin’
In the hot New Jersey night

Mr. Carter, landing a right against Luis Rodriguez at Madison Square Garden in 1965. Source:

It is in the third verse that the audience is introduced to the main character in the song’s story: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. It is also here that Dylan introduces the theme of racial prejudice, which he claims is “just the way things go” in Paterson, New Jersey. It is clear, therefore, from this moment what stance Dylan is taking – he clearly believes Carter’s unjust incarceration was racially motivated:

Meanwhile, far away in another part of town
Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin’ around
Number one contender for the middleweight crown
Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down
When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
Just like the time before and the time before that
In Paterson that’s just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you want to draw the heat

Continuing the Story

The next two verses continue the story of what happened last night, now introducing Bradley to the scene:

Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the cops
Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowlin’ around
He said, I saw two men runnin’ out, they looked like middleweights
They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates
And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head
Cop said, wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead
So they took him to the infirmary
And though this man could hardly see
They told him that he could identify the guilty men

Rubin Carter in action against Harry Scott during their fight at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1965. Source:

Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in
They took him to the hospital and they brought him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye
Says, wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!
Here’s 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

Police Corruption in Paterson

The next two verses are extremely powerful in the sense that they introduce the theme of police corruption and suggest this was common in Paterson. While doing so, the theme of racism and racial prejudice is again referenced. These were two important topics during the 1960s in America, and Dylan was determined to use “Hurricane” to increase awareness of these issues:

Four months later, the ghettos are in flame
Rubin’s in South America, fightin’ for his name
While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s still in the robbery game
And the cops are puttin’ the screws to him, lookin’ for somebody to blame
Remember that murder that happened in a bar
Remember you said you saw the getaway car
You think you’d like to play ball with the law
Think it might-a been that fighter that you saw runnin’ that night
Don’t forget that you are white

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Source:

Arthur Dexter Bradley said I’m really not sure
The cops said a poor boy like you could use a break
We got you for the motel job and we’re talkin’ to your friend Bello
You don’t wanta have to go back to jail, be a nice fellow
You’ll be doin’ society a favor
That sonofabitch is brave and gettin’ braver
We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple murder on him
He ain’t no Gentleman Jim

Carter Never Had a Chance

The next three verses that follow outline how Carter’s potential was ripped away from him, claiming the authorities tried “to turn a man into a mouse” by incarcerating him. Dylan’s attention now turns to the trial, claiming it was a “pig circus” and that Carter “never had a chance.”

The Night of the Hurricane benefit concert on 8 December 1975 at Madison Square Garden, where Muhammad Ali visits Bob Dylan backstage and gives him a gift — a huge boxing glove. C/O Estate of Ken Regan / Ormond Yard Press. Source:

To imply the trial was rigged from the start is a powerful political message, again raising the issues of racism in 1960s America:

Rubin could take a man out with just one punch
But he never did like to talk about it all that much
It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay
And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way
Up to some paradise
Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice
And ride a horse along a trail
But then they took him to the jailhouse
Where they try to turn a man into a mouse
All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance
The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance
The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums
To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum
And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger
No one doubted that he pulled the trigger
And though they could not produce the gun
The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed

Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder one, guess who testified
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game

Wrapping up the Hurricane

The song ends somewhat bitterly with Carter in prison and the real perpetrators “free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise.” However, Dylan makes it clear that the story is far from over and suggests that the authorities should “give him back the time he’s done” – no doubt he had some idea of the events that were yet to come:

George Lois (center, in a Hurricane campaign t-shirt) and co-organiser Paul Sapounakis talk Bob Dylan into writing the protest song, Hurricane (1975)

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
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
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

The Hurricane’s Aftermath

Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue continued into 1976, beginning on 25 January with a star-studded concert called “Night of the Hurricane II,” which took place in Houston and featured headliners such as Stevie Wonder and Stephen Stills. That March, arguably at least in part due to Dylan publicizing the case, Carter was awarded a retrial and released on bail.

Bob Dylan – “Night of The Hurricane II” Concert Program Houston 1976. Source:

On 22 December 1976, however, both Carter and Artis were found guilty again and re-sentenced to life in prison. Dylan did not take up his cause for a second time and never played “Hurricane” live again.

When it was released, “Hurricane” reached number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America and number 43 in the UK charts. Out of all the Dylan songs, “Hurricane” is arguably one that fans would give anything to hear him perform, as he has not done so since the Night of the Hurricane II.

What Became of the Hurricane Himself?

Since then, the song has been covered by Ani DiFranco, Furthur, Middle-Class Rut and the Milltown Brothers, although none of these versions achieved great success. After being sentenced to life in prison for the second time, Carter’s conviction was finally overturned in July 1985 by Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin of the New Jersey Federal District Court after Carter’s attorneys filed a petition for habeas corpus.

The press interviews Hurricane Carter at Clinton State Prison after Bob Dylan’s concert there, Dec. 5, 1975. (Photo by Cal Deal). Source:

Setting aside all of the convictions, Sarokin noted that the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” At 48 years old, Carter was freed without bail in November 1985 after spending almost two whole decades in prison, a lot of which was in solitary confinement.

The Storm’s not Over Yet

Prosecutors appealed Sarokin’s ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and filed a motion to return Carter to prison pending the outcome of the appeal. The court denied this motion, however, and eventually upheld Sarokin’s opinion. The prosecutors appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which declined even to hear the case. Despite this, Carter was never actually found “not guilty,” so many feel as though his name was never actually cleared.


Carter and Artis could have been tried a third time, but prosecutors instead filed a motion to dismiss the original indictments. “It is just not legally feasible to sustain a prosecution, and not practical after almost 22 years to be trying anyone,” said Attorney General W. Cary Edwards.

Prosecutor John P. Goceljak said several factors made a retrial impossible, including Bello’s “current unreliability” as a witness. Goceljak also doubted whether the prosecution could reintroduce the racially motivated crime theory due to the federal court rulings. A judge granted the motion to dismiss, bringing an end to the legal proceedings.

The Lasting Legacy of the Hurricane

As you probably already know, the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter has been made into a Hollywood movie. And the role was played by none other than Denzel Washington. It is because Carter has touched many people across the world and serves as a reminder of issues surrounding the American legal and justice system, as well as police corruption and racial tensions and prejudices.


A number of biographies have been written about Carter since, and a movie titled “The Hurricane” was released in 1999, with Hollywood star Denzel Washington playing Rubin Carter. From 1993 to 2005, Carter served as executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. He died on April 20, 2014, as a result of prostate cancer.