On May 12, 1963, the young and unknown Bob Dylan walked off the set of the country’s highest-rated variety show after network censors rejected the song he planned on performing.
Dylan was slated to appear on the massively popular variety show on this day, May 12, in 1963 — a year before the Beatles. At the time, he was little known by mainstream audiences, although TIME had referred to him a year earlier as “a promising young hobo.”
On Ed Sullivan, Dylan planned to put a spin on his clothespin-on-the-nose honesty with “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” a satirical song written from the perspective of a John Birch Society member who is so terrified of communist infiltration that he looks for Reds everywhere, including in his chimney, toilet and glove box.
In May of 1963, Bob Dylan was still an aspiring young musician who was preparing for the release of his 2nd album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. At this point in his career, Dylan had received little national attention. It seemed if that was all about to change when he received an invitation to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” was at the center of a controversy that brought national attention to Dylan and played a significant part in shaping his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. On May 12, 1963, with the album about to be released, Dylan was scheduled to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The Sunday evening variety program, among the most popular shows on American television, had earlier introduced Elvis Presley to national audiences and in 1964 would do the same for The Beatles.
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.
The song that caused the flap was “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” a satirical talking-blues number skewering the ultra-conservative John Birch Society and its tendency to see covert members of an international Communist conspiracy behind every tree. Dylan had auditioned “John Birch” days earlier and had run through it for Ed Sullivan himself without any concern being raised