May 12 1962: Dylan Walks away from Sullivan show appearance over Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues
“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.
Dylan had auditioned for the show in early 1962, before the release of his first album. He played a few songs from the recording, but the network executives who sat in on the set weren’t exactly sure what to make of him. 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). 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.