On May 12, 1963, Bob Dylan walked off the set of The Ed Sullivan Show after CBS executives objected to lyrics in his planned performance of “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” The satirical song about the conservative John Birch Society and the organization’s fear of communists had not been a problem during dress rehearsal, and Ed Sullivan had not objected to the song. But CBS lawyers were worried that the song might subject them to lawsuits. Rather than sing another song or change the lyrics, Dylan left, never performing on the popular show.
Although many have repeated the legend that Dylan had a tantrum and stormed off in anger, contemporary reports indicate Dylan was polite about the affair. When a producer explained the options to Dylan, the singer just responded that he only wanted to sing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” and otherwise he would leave.
Thus, Dylan, whose second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan had not yet been released, passed up the big break on national TV. The incident, however, received a lot of attention, actually helping Dylan’s sales, and in interviews Ed Sullivan stated he did not agree with the decision.
Thus, there is no Ed Sullivan Show performance of the song for us to hear. So below is another performance of “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” from the same year.
Reportedly, one side effect from the Ed Sullivan controversy was that CBS’s record division, Columbia, then became concerned about the song being on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. At that time, with only one weak-selling album under his belt, Dylan could not fight with the record company. So the song was pulled from the album, and Dylan used the opportunity to make some other last-minute song switches. A live 1963 performance of “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” would officially be released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.
Should Dylan have changed the lyrics like The Doors and Rolling Stones did for the same show? Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)