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When Bob Dylan Bailed On Ed Sullivan Over 'Talkin John Birch Blues'
For a 21-year-old Bob Dylan, a shot at playing the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 was a priceless. It was the biggest of big breaks. Most artists in such a situation would acquiesce to any request from the network, but as we all would learn, Dylan was not "most artists." Loaded with talent and uninterested in compromise, the young folk prodigy from Hibbing, Minnesota, wanted to play "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" -- a song that remains obscure in his catalog to this day -- and would not budge.
Dylan had released his self-titled album, his first, on March 19, 1962. The album did not garner much attention after its release, but his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released a year later. “Talkin’ John Birch Blues” also known as “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” and “Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues” was initially recorded for the album.
Publicity For A Relatively Unknown Artist
Dylan was till relatively unknown, and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show would have provided a necessary boost to his career. He was slated to appear on the show on May 12, 1963, 12 days before his 22nd birthday. He auditioned “Talkin John Birch Blues” for the show, and Sullivan apparently had no problem with it. However, a CBS executive heard Dylan perform it during dress rehearsal and thought it was too controversial and may potentially result in a defamation suit by the members of the John Birch Society. CBS told Dylan he would have to change the lyrics or sing a different song.
In the years to come, both The Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison of The Doors would face the same request. The Stones would comply, altering the words of "Let's Spend The Night Together," while Morrison would pretend to go along only to sing "Light My Fire" his own way when he performed live. For that, The Doors were banned from performing on the show again.
The Lyrics Of 'Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues'
Well, I was feelin’ sad and feelin’ blue
I didn’t know what in the world I wus gonna do
Them Communists they wus comin’ around
They wus in the air
They wus on the ground
They wouldn’t gimme no peace . . .
So I run down most hurriedly
And joined up with the John Birch Society
I got me a secret membership card
And started off a-walkin’ down the road
Yee-hoo, I’m a real John Bircher now!
Look out you Commies!
Now we all agree with Hitler’s views
Although he killed six million Jews
It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist
At least you can’t say he was a Communist!
That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria
Well, I wus lookin’ everywhere for them gol-darned Reds
I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed
Looked in the sink, behind the door
Looked in the glove compartment of my car
Couldn’t find ’em . . .
I wus lookin’ high an’ low for them Reds everywhere
I wus lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl
They got away . . .
Well, I wus sittin’ home alone an’ started to sweat
Figured they wus in my T.V. set
Peeked behind the picture frame
Got a shock from my feet, hittin’ right up in the brain
Them Reds caused it!
I know they did . . . them hard-core ones
Well, I quit my job so I could work all alone
Then I changed my name to Sherlock Holmes
Followed some clues from my detective bag
And discovered they wus red stripes on the American flag!
That ol’ Betsy Ross . . .
Well, I investigated all the books in the library
Ninety percent of ’em gotta be burned away
I investigated all the people that I knowed
Ninety-eight percent of them gotta go
The other two percent are fellow Birchers . . . just like me
Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy
Lincoln, Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy
To my knowledge there’s just one man
That’s really a true American: George Lincoln Rockwell
I know for a fact he hates Commies cus he picketed the movie Exodus
Well, I fin’ly started thinkin’ straight
When I run outa things to investigate
Couldn’t imagine doin’ anything else
So now I’m sittin’ home investigatin’ myself!
Hope I don’t find out anything . . . hmm, great God!
What The Song Was About
The song, which was a protest song and talking blues song, was inspired by George Lincoln Rockwell’s (an anti-communist and the founder of the American Nazi Party) appearance wearing a Nazi uniform at a theater showing Exodus, a film about the founding of Israel. In Dylan’s satirical song, the paranoid narrator believes the ‘Reds’ are infiltrating the country. The narrator then joins the John Birch Society, which believed that Eisenhower was part of the communist conspiracy. From there, the narrator starts imagining communists everywhere, and thinks that George Lincoln Rockwell is the only “true American.” In the end, with nothing left to investigate, he starts to investigate himself.
Dylan, rather than cave to CBS' demands, decided to walk off the set, getting significant publicity in return for his refusal. The New York Times published an article about the incident, titled “Satire on Birch Society Barred from Ed Sullivan’s TV Show,” which showed he had the moral high ground. However, his challenges didn’t end with the incident, since CBS also owned Columbia Records, his label. When Columbia heard about it, they pulled the song from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, worried that it might lead to a suit for libel.
He May Have Made The Right Choice
Because his first album did not sell well, Dylan was not in a position where he could argue with his record company. The company recalled the albums and it was rereleased. The Ed Sullivan Show incident had an additional benefit beyond the unexpected publicity: he had the opportunity to rethink some of the other songs on the album. He decided to drop three songs in addition to “Talkin’ John Birch Blues’ and substituted four other songs.
Tags: Bob Dylan | Ed Sullivan | John Birch Society | Music In The 1960s | Protest Songs
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