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.
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.
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, CBS Standards and Practices department the song would have to be replaced because of possible libel against John Birch Society members. 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.” 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. 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.