Woke-washing Bob Dylan

Andrew Donaldson writes on the controversy over the BBC's mutilation of the song 'Hurricane'


A COUPLE of Sundays back, a crudely “edited” version of Bob Dylan’s Hurricane was broadcast on the BBC’s 6 Music station. A line containing the N-word had been hacked from the song. Listeners were not informed beforehand that it had been censored and producers of the Now Playing @6Music programme have yet to explain why they deleted the line. A row of sorts followed.

The song, which opened Dylan’s 1975 album, Desire, is about the middleweight boxer Rubin Carter, who was wrongfully convicted for a triple murder in a New Jersey bar in 1966 and imprisoned for life. After a lengthy appeals process, Carter was finally freed in 1985 after a ruling that his conviction had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Hurricane, with lyrics co-written by theatre director Jacques Levy, was considered to be a return to Dylan’s early 1960s “protest” form. It was not without controversy. An earlier version, performed live on America’s Public Broadcasting Service, suggested that key witnesses in Carter’s trial had “robbed the bodies” of the victims, an allegation that Columbia Records’ lawyers warned could result in a costly defamation lawsuit. The song was hastily rerecorded and released with altered lyrics. It still drew legal action: an eyewitness who claimed the song portrayed her as being part of the conspiracy to frame Carter sued Dylan for libel. Her suit was dismissed.

Hurricane also stands accused of various factual errors. Boxing aficionados, for example, point out that Carter was never the “number one contender the middleweight crown”, as Dylan had claimed, but was, instead, ranked ninth at the time of his arrest and had never been ranked higher than third in his entire career. Others had accused the songwriter of “excessive poetic licence”; while he praised the song, one Dylan biographer complained it fails to mention Carter’s “antagonistic rhetoric, criminal history, or violent temper”.

For all that, the song is an “impassioned anti-racist account of a notorious injustice”, as one lister complained to the BBC, and “the line you omitted is very much a key moment in the story; a key moment, because in Dylan’s story-telling, even black onlookers assumed Carter was guilty…”:

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 DA said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed

Dylan is no stranger to charges of “excessive poetic licence”. An earlier controversy concerns The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, a “topical” song from his 1964 album, The Times They Are a-Changin’. Given the events that inspired the song, the factual errors seem negligible.

Carroll was a 51-year-old black barmaid who died about eight hours after being assaulted in a racist fury at a Baltimore hotel by a drunk William Zantzinger, the 24-year-old scion of a wealthy Maryland tobacco farming family. She wasn’t Zantzinger’s only victim that evening. He had also lashed out and abused other staffers who had been slow in serving him drink. He’d even attacked his own wife, knocking her to the ground and hitting her with his shoe.

An autopsy later revealed that Carroll had suffered from hardened arteries, an enlarged heart and high blood pressure, and that a brain haemorrhage had caused her death. Zantzinger was initially charged with murder, but this was reduced to manslaughter, based on the likelihood that Carroll’s death was the result of a stress reaction to the verbal and physical abuse rather than blunt-force trauma from the blow from a cane wielded by Zantzinger. 

On September 6, 1963, Time magazine reported: “Following a three-day trial, Zantzinger was found guilty. For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125. For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500. The judges considerately deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop.”

Zantzinger was dismissive about his sentence. “I’ll just miss a lot of snow,” the New York Herald Tribune quoted him as saying. His wife was however taken aback by the public’s poor opinion of her husband after the trial. According to the Washington Post, she protested: “Nobody treats his niggers as well as Billy does around here.”

As for the errors in Hattie Carroll, considered to be one of Dylan’s greatest songs, Zantzinger—misspelt and mispronounced “Zanzinger” by the singer—was initially booked for second degree murder, and not first, as the song claims. Carroll was the mother of nine children, and not ten, as Dylan sang. Time, incidentally, reported she’d given birth to eleven. 

In a 2001 interview, Zantzinger dismissed the song as a “total lie”, claiming, “It’s actually had no effect upon my life.” He had this to say of its author: “He’s a no-account son of a bitch; he’s just like a scum of a scumbag of the earth. I should have sued him and put him in jail.”

It’s noteworthy that, by the time of the song’s release, Dylan had grown tired of the “protest singer” label. In August 1963, he and Joan Baez had performed at the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr, had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, but he now declined to appear at any more rallies and protest meetings. According to the journalist David Hadju, Dylan felt “especially uncomfortable as a white man in the civil rights movement”, unable to comprehend the “black experience”, while his own sympathies extended “beyond race”. As the singer then explained, with some exasperation: 

“It’s not that I’m pessimistic about Negroes’ rights, but the word ‘Negro’ sounds foolish coming from my mouth. What’s a Negro? I don’t know what a Negro is. What’s a Negro—a black person? How black? What’s a Negro? A person living in a two-room shack with twelve kids? A lot of white people live in a two-room shack with twelve kids. Does this make them Negro? What’s a Negro—someone with African blood? A lot of white people have African blood. What’s a Negro? An Ethiopian kind of thing? That’s not Negro—that’s ancient religious pyjama-riding freaks. I’ve got nothing against Negro rights. I never did. [But] anybody who is taught to get his kicks off a superiority feeling—man, that’s a drag.”

Half a century later, that drag now directs the culture. The journalist Marverine Cole, for one, defended the BBC for “absolutely” making the “right decision” in censoring Hurricane. She was one of two black broadcasters approached by the BBC’s Feedback programme for comment on the issue.

“I don’t like the word,” she told presenter Roger Bolton. “I don’t like hearing it. I listen to it where I choose to listen to music that has a parental advisory on it. I’m still not a fan when I hear it, but sometimes, you know, the music is kinda groovy to me, when I like the beats and what have you, but I’m like, ugh, I roll my eyes and go, ‘Can they stop using the word?’ … I do not want to hear that on a network station … I don’t want to hear it when I didn’t expect it.”

But, as Bolton suggested, the N-word is heard in the music played on stations like the BBC’s Radio 1Xtra because it had been “reclaimed” by black musicians; it was part of their “lived experience” of racism. Trevor Phillips, the Index on Censorship chair and the other guest on Feedback, thought this risible:

“It is the thing that makes me most furious of all. There was a word for a regime in which the law said one thing for black people and another thing for white people, and which you could do something, and I could not. We called it apartheid, we called it segregation. I mean, it’s just so shocking to me that the BBC has now essentially created a regime in which I can say something and you cannot, and vice versa. I thought we had left all that behind us thirty, forty years ago. 

“The truth of the matter is, if a word is meaningful, and we’re discussing it, and it has some significance, then there should be no distinction between professionals who are using it depending on their race. Or, by the way, their gender.”

Phillips was just as scathing about censorship of Dylan. “He’s an artist, and he’s a genius,” he said, “And with the greatest respect to the BBC’s producers, I don’t think anybody is qualified to tell me which bit of Bob Dylan’s output I should listen to and I should not listen to. If the word is good enough for Bob Dylan, who’s not going to put it into his song for some gratuitous reason, which, by the way, a lot of the output elsewhere in the BBC does, Bob Dylan has used that word for a particular reason in one of his most powerful pieces of work, which, by the way, is a proudly anti-racist work, and for somebody who, frankly, shouldn’t be there to judge a genius, to tell me I’m too fragile to listen to what Bob Dylan has done with his work of art, I think this is both absurd and insulting, and actually not what the BBC is there to do.”

The suggestion of a “fragile” society in need of “protection” from its harsher realities is … interesting. Bolton warned his listeners beforehand that Phillips would be using the N-word in full; he was going to utter the unutterable, uncensored. And, lo, he did, saying that he would not expect it to be excised in, for example, a Radio 4 reading of a Toni Morrison novel. “Because the use of the word is part of what the artist is doing and, you know, you might as well decide not to play the song, not to read the book, if what you’re going to do is make some second-hand judgment about whether Toni Morrison was right to use the word or Bob Dylan was right to use the word. It’s absurd.”

Bolton’s “advisory” about Phillips’s comments was no less absurd. Why would Trevor Phillips be uncensored on the BBC, and not Bob Dylan?  

But such paradoxes are characteristic of the New Frailty. And they’re bad for mental health, apparently. The psychologist Tracy Dennis-Tiwary has expressed concern over the growth of “collective anxiety-avoidance techniques” like “safe spaces” and trigger warnings. “I think they’re counter-productive and, so far, the evidence suggests that, too,” she told the Observer Magazine recently. “What they tend to do is inform someone that they’re not up to the task and that difficult emotions are harmful.”

And so goes the culture. What was once merely “difficult” in artistic expression is now decidedly dangerous. There is perhaps nothing new about all this, and we can draw some comfort from the fact that, like trigger warnings, proscription is also counter-productive. Look at what banning did for Lady Chatterley’s Lover or, for that matter, Andre Brink’s career. The big difference, though, with the New Frailty is just how anodyne and rightly right-on the act of shutting people up now appears.

Elsewhere, and blowin’ in the wind. . . 

Breaking news: the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture has details on what it has termed the “national monumental flag project”. According to a BusinessTech report, “monumental flags” are installed by countries to express their “identity and pride”. 

The department has already embarked on a process to “conceptualise, design and ultimately install a national monumental flag, with a flagpole that will be more than 100 metres in height”. South African identity and pride being what it is, this “national landmark” and “tourist attraction” will cost R22-million. That’s R5-million for the pole and R17-million for the flag.

“The flag, as the brand image of the country, needs to be highly recognised by the citizens,” the department said in a statement. “Rendering a national flag as a monument of democracy goes a long way in making it highly recognised by the citizens. This has the potential to unite people as it becomes a symbol of unity and common identity. The project is envisaged to contribute towards nation-building and social cohesion. During 2022/23, the project will be tracked in the operational plan and the feasibility study conducted will guide the way forward towards installing a monumental flag.”

Which is all well and good, but very important questions remain unanswered. Such as, where will this monstrosity be erected, what could possibly cohere and unify the nation more than the fact that the government has already beggared it, and, as my sister-in-law suggests, why not make the flagpole 200 metres tall and that way maybe steal R44-million?