Credit: CBC

Why Bob Dylan turned his back on The Ed Sullivan Show

Bob Dylan’s standing in pop culture is now unquestionable. However, in 1963, he was just a young folk singer with a small following— far removed from the mainstream appeal of The Ed Sullivan Show. Yet the singer still decided that, after the show attempted to censor his performance, he would walk off set and refuse to sing, refuse the popularity and refuse any stardom bestowed upon him. It was quite the statement and one that would underpin his entire career.

After his self-titled album arrived in 1962, Bob Dylan suddenly became the name on everybody’s lips in the smokey coffeehouses of New York and his sound began to travel through the land. The natural successor to his idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan was given a chance to impress one a national if not global scale, when the team at The Ed Sullivan Show spotted the young singer and offered him an audience like no other.

Bob Dylan’s second album, his breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, had not yet been released, and his appearance at the March on Washington had given him some national acclaim and local grounding but had certainly not catapulted him into the charts. So, one might have thought the chance to perform for a national audience on one of the biggest shows on TV was too tempting to avoid—but Dylan proved his authenticity when he walked out on the show.

The highest-rated variety show on television provided Dylan ample chance to play some of his folk songs and continue his ascendency, but network executives were keen to change the setlist and keep tight control over the show’s proceedings. While it may seem trivial in a world where minute details are planned to the nth degree, it would seem there was a sincere attempt to censor Bob Dylan.

The offending track was ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’—a satirical spoken-word blues number that aimed at the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. In particular, the track poked fun at the Society’s desperation to find Communist Party members under every rock. It was a sad tale of the decade that almost every new and upcoming, as well as the longstanding, artistic face, was given a check over for Communist affiliations by the government. Dylan saw fit to do his own check.

Much of the lyrics are humorous and inoffensive, but the executives at the network decided that the line: “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” was too much to handle. In defence of the family show, its reference to the founder of the American Nazi Party only twenty years after the catastrophic war may well have crossed a line for the variety show.

During dress rehearsals, the fear of a defamation lawsuit and a public backlash pushed the executives at CBS to ask Dylan to either scrap the lines or change the song for his performance. In pursuit of his own artistic integrity, Dylan would not comply with the censorship and instead politely walked out of the studio, turned his back on arguably the biggest opportunity of his life so far and refused to return.

“I explained the situation to Bob and asked him if he wanted to do something else,” recalls Ed Sullivan Show producer Bob Precht for History.com, “and Bob, quite appropriately, said ‘No, this is what I want to do. If I can’t play my song, I’d rather not appear on the show.’”

The walkout garnered a lot of attention from the press in the following days leading Ed Sullivan himself to denounce the decision to try and change the song.

Meanwhile, Bob Dylan asserted himself as an authentic artist and only added to his credibility amid the swelling counter-culture movement. It was one of the first steps of a long road for a young Bob Dylan.