Dateline May 12, 1963 – Back in the day you couldn’t really say you were in Show Biz unless you had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. As much as Bob Dylan was known as a Protest singer, he still craved Show Biz legitimacy. That’s why he allowed himself to be booked on the Sullivan Show on this day in 1963. However, always the contrarian, Dylan walked off the show before he was to appear.
Ed Sullivan was a Tee Vee institution. Beginning in 1948 as Toast of the Town, his show ran for 23 seasons — 22 of them in the same Sunday night time slot of 8PM. Entire families would gather around the only tee vee set in the house and watch one of the only 3 tee vee networks in existence. The Sullivan Show had something for everyone in the entire family. It was a variety show, in the Vaudevillian tradition; a solo singer might be followed by a ventriloquist, who was followed by a plate spinner, with a Big Band performance next, to be followed by a comedian, and then, maybe, wrapped up with a scene from a Broadway musical. In a classic example of Art imitating Life, this “Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” sums up the importance of an appearance on the Sullivan show.
In ’63 Dylan was just an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, barely known outside the small, cultish world of Folk enthusiasts. If people knew him at all it was from Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover version of Blowin’ in the Wind. His 2nd LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with his own version of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” was just days away from being released. A Sullivan appearance would have been a huge boost to Dylan’s career and fame. However, according to the Official Ed Sullivan Show webeteria:
Bob Dylan was slated to make his first nationwide television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on May 12, 1963. For the show, Dylan decided to perform “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, a satirical blues number skewering the conservative John Birch Society and the red-hunting paranoia associated with it. A few days earlier, Bob Dylan auditioned the song for Ed Sullivan who seemed to have no issue with it. However, on the day of the show during the dress rehearsal, an executive from the CBS Standards and Practices department decided Dylan could not perform the song due to its controversial nature. When the show’s producer, Bob Precht, informed Dylan of the decision, Dylan responded saying, “No; this is what I want to do. If I can’t play my song, I’d rather not appear on the show.” Rather than choose a new song to perform or change the lyrics (as the Rolling Stones and the Doors on Ed Sullivan would agree to do), a young Bob Dylan walked off the set of the country’s highest-rated variety show.
The story got widespread media attention in the days that followed helping to establish Dylan’s public reputation as an uncompromising artist. The publicity Bob Dylan received from this event probably did more for his career than the actual Ed Sullivan Show performance would have. Unfortunately, this leaves us with no performance footage of Bob Dylan on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Here’s a live version of “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” which Dylan introduces by saying, “And, there ain’t nothing wrong with this song.”
No wonder they didn’t want the song performed on the show. In 1963 “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” would have still been politically explosive. However, Ed Sullivan was a known control freak, who had his fingers in every aspect of his show. It’s hard to believe he wasn’t part of this decision, if not the instigator. An alternative theory is that Sullivan found the song a bit too far for his family audience, but wanted to come off as Mr. Nice Guy, so he told Bob Precht to deliver the bad news to Dylan. Blaming the CBS Standards and Practices office was probably just Standard Operating Procedure at the time.
Regardless of who made the decision, it resulted in Dylan’s “boot heels to be wandering.”