NEW YORK — More than three decades have passed since Bob Dylan brought the plight of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter into the public consciousness: "Criminals in their coats and their ties are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise while Rubin sits like Buddha in a 10-foot cell, an innocent man in a living hell."
Dylan championed the case of Carter, a former middleweight boxer convicted twice of a 1966 triple murder. And in the end, Carter was freed after 19 years in prison; a federal judge found that the conviction was tainted by racial bias and that Carter and his co-defendant were denied their civil rights.
Now, academics from around the country will examine the implications of that song and others during "Bob Dylan and the Law," a conference presented by Fordham University's law and ethics center and Touro Law School.
"We basically said to people who write and think about the law and who also happen to like Dylan's music, `find a way to put them together; tell us how Dylan relates to your academic work or your thinking,'" said Fordham professor Bruce Green, one of the organizers.
An academic session on Tuesday follows a Monday night public panel discussion at Fordham in Manhattan.
"We think it's important once in a while to have fun, and to free the scholarly imagination," Green said. "Good scholarship and good teaching require it. ... It's a lens through which to look at the relationship between law, society and culture. We hope it leads some scholars to think things they haven't thought before."
Green has been a Dylan fan since high school. "My parents couldn't stand it – they liked Frank Sinatra. They thought Dylan was just whining, and that listening to him was a waste of time," he wryly noted. "Now I am vindicated. I can say that, all along, I was setting the stage for future scholarship."
Another conversation topic at the conference will be "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."
In 1963, tobacco farmer William D. Zantzinger was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six months in jail plus a $500 fine for killing Hattie Carroll, a barmaid at a society charity dance.
Zantzinger "killed poor Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger at a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin' ...," sings Dylan. "In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel to show that all's equal and that the courts are on the level. And that the strings in the books ain't pulled and persuaded and that even the nobles get properly handled."
The conference also offers intellectual counterpoints.
Dylan "wrote some very powerful songs about what happens to folks when the system, and when the law, fail them," said Richard H. Underwood, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law. But while Dylan was inspired by real-life cases, Underwood said, he "was not necessarily concerned with true facts. He took a lot of poetic license."
"I must say, Dylan never lets the facts get in the way of a good story," agreed Abbe Smith, a Georgetown Law School professor who's also an expert on Bruce Springsteen and the law.
Though "beautiful," she said, the Hattie Carroll ballad is "not exactly accurate." Among other things, Dylan misstated the charge; and there was "reasonable argument that the cause of the death was not a blow to the head," but Carroll's poor health.
Dylan has "a kind of stark, if not simplistic, view of guilt and innocence," said Smith. "It may be the stories he picks, or how the story gets told in something as relatively short as a song."
And how, Smith is asked, might Dylan view lawyers?
"I think he probably likes lawyers better than judges," she said with a chuckle. "I think he probably would like lawyers who fight for the little guy. He would not like Holden Caulfield from 'Catcher in the Rye.'"
Coincidental to the conference will be the April 12 release of a Dylan recording from a long-ago folk festival in Waltham, Mass.
The set list from that appearance included "Ballad of Hollis Brown," which relates what Dylan has said was the true story of how "seven shots ring out like the ocean's pounding roar. There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm."
The new release's title? "Bob Dylan in Concert – Brandeis University 1963." The school was named for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis.
Bob Dylan: http://bobdylan.com
Fordham University Law School: http://www.law.fordham.edu