Bob Dylan was more than a decade past his protest-song period when he came across Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s book The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472 in the summer of 1975. Carter was a middleweight boxer that was arrested in 1966 and charged with a murder that he almost certainly didn’t commit. The book moved Dylan deeply and he went out to go visit Carter at prison in Trenton, New Jersey.
“I left knowing one thing,” said Dylan. “That this man’s philosophy and my philosophy were running on the same road, and you don’t meet too many people like that. I took notes because I wasn’t aware of all the facts and I thought maybe sometime I could condense it down and put it into a song.”
At the time, Dylan was just beginning to write a collection of songs with theater director Jacques Levy that ultimately wound up on the 1976 album Desire. “I wanted to take the part of an attorney, almost,” said Levy, who passed away in 2004, “and tell the story to the jury.” Levy’s theatrical background comes through in the very first words of the song, which read like stage directions: “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall.”
Dylan debuted the track on a TV special for retiring Columbia executive John Hammond in September of 1975. It raised red flags with Columbia’s legal executives immediately since it falsely stated that witness Patty Valentine was in a romantic relationship with one of the victims, as well as wrongly accusing others of “robbing the bodies.” Dylan ultimately re-recorded the track to address some of these issues, and when he launched the Rolling Thunder Revue later that year he demanded that Carter be freed every night from the stage.
Carter wasn’t let go for another 10 years, and Dylan hasn’t performed “Hurricane” once since the Rolling Thunder Revue wrapped up in 1976.
The performance captured here from the John Hammond special remains noteworthy because it was one of Dylan’s few TV appearances from the 1970s, and it’s the only time he played “Hurricane” with a stripped-down band. Not many people could have gotten Dylan to play on TV back then, but Hammond signed him as a complete unknown in 1961 and fought for him after his debut LP tanked.
“Just the fact that [Dylan] came was incredible,” Hammond told Rolling Stone at the time. “And that song about ‘Hurricane’ Carter is magnificent. I think it’s going to free him.”