I heard a blurb on the radio today about an event that DID NOT take place 55 years ago, May 12, 1963.
That event was Bob Dylan performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. At the time, Dylan was a relative unknown, but appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show could change that overnight, like it had done for Elvis several years earlier, and would do so for the Beatles in 1964.
Dylan had auditioned for the show in early 1962, before the release of his first album. He played a few songs from that recording, but the network executives who sat in on the set weren’t exactly sure what to make of him and so he never got a chance to perform at that time. Unhappy with the experience, Dylan thought he wouldn’t hear from the network again. More than a year passed when the call came inviting him to make a guest appearance on the show.
For his one selection, Dylan chose “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” (as it was then titled; it later became known as the Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues). It is a satirical song, in which a paranoid narrator is convinced that communists, or “Reds” as he calls them, are infiltrating the country. He joins the John Birch Society, an anti-communist group, and begins searching for Reds everywhere: under his bed, up his chimney, down his toilet and in his glove compartment. After exhausting the possibilities, he begins to investigate himself.
Sullivan and his producer heard him play it at the Saturday rehearsal on May 11 and were delighted with the song. However, when Dylan showed up for the dress rehearsal the next afternoon, the day of the show, a CBS program practices executive told him the song would have to be replaced because of possible libel against John Birch Society members. Refusing to do a different song, Dylan walked off the set. The incident drew national attention with reports running in the New York Times, Billboard, and Village Voice. Sullivan, meanwhile, backed Dylan, arguing that if network programs could poke fun at President John F. Kennedy, the John Birch Society should not be immune from similar treatment. Concerned about possible reprisals from the John Birch group, the network held to its decision, and Dylan ended up never performing on the Ed Sullivan show.
I am sure it took a lot of courage for Dylan to make such a decision. Appearing on the Ed Sullivan show was the kind of opportunity that artists dreamed about, and one that could make someone an overnight sensation.
Yet he stood his ground, and walked off the set. Fortunately, Dylan received a great deal of positive press for his decision, and he ended up becoming quite well known as a result of his non-appearance.
But I am sure he had no way of knowing that things would turn out that way at the time he made the decision to walk off the set.
If he hadn’t received such favorable publicity, would Dylan still have become the superstar that he did? We’ll never know the answer to that question, but fortunately, things worked out quite well for Dylan, and for us.
So in an odd twist of fate, it seems as if Dylan’s career got a jump start not from performing, but from NOT performing. And for standing up for what he believed in.
If you are not familiar with the song (I had never heard of it), here is a YouTube video of Dylan singing the song (audio only), and underneath the video are the lyrics to the song. It’s clear that Dylan had a way with words, a sense of humor, and a unique insight into the social issues of the day.
I didn’t know what in the world I was gonna do
Them Communists they was comin’ around
They was in the air
They was on the ground
They wouldn’t gimme no peace
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
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
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 was lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep inside my toilet bowl
They got away
Figured they was 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
Then I changed my name to Sherlock Holmes
Followed some clues from my detective bag
And discovered they was red stripes on the American flag
That ol’ Betty Ross
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
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 ’cause he picketed the movie Exodus
When I run outta things to investigate
Couldn’t imagine doin’ anything else
So now I’m sittin’ home investigatin’ myself
Hope I don’t find out anything, hm, great God