May 12, 1963: Bob Dylan Walks Out on Ed Sullivan

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Bob Dylan in rehearsal for The Ed Sullivan Show

It’s unimaginable, in retrospect, to think that it ever could have happened at all: Bob Dylan on The Ed Sullivan Show? Would he perform in between Topo Gigio the Italian mouse and a team of jugglers? Sullivan’s variety show was family entertainment—it beamed into millions of American homes every Sunday evening, and while the genial host prided himself on presenting a wide array of entertainment, was he really going to showcase a controversial, unpredictable, rising young folk singer who enjoyed nothing more than provoking what was becoming known as the Establishment?

Did Sullivan not know when he booked Dylan that he was gaining attention for his protest songs, and that he might offend some viewers with his topical material? Did old Ed expect a campfire sing-along?

Related: Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival

The re-released version of Freewheelin’

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the singer’s second album, was still a couple of weeks away from release on the night that he was set to perform on national television. It contained his own version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the song that would soon become an anthem for a generation via its cover by Peter, Paul and Mary. It also introduced future Dylan classics like  “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

But Dylan wasn’t interested in performing any of those songs for Sullivan. He wanted to sing “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,” a song that lampooned the anti-Communist organization of that name. Sullivan and his producer actually OK’d it during the rehearsal the day before broadcast, but when Sunday rolled around, Dylan was informed that CBS executives had nixed his choice as too divisive for the Sullivan crowd.

The show’s producers suggested to Dylan that he sing something a bit less confrontational. No thanks, Dylan responded, and rather than switch he packed up his guitar, walked out of the studio and never returned.

Dylan’s decision to pass on The Ed Sullivan Show became bigger news than his actual booking. No one turned down Ed Sullivan! This was the show that had broken Elvis Presley and would soon give the Beatles their first major American exposure. But Dylan wasn’t about to be told what he could sing—not by Ed Sullivan, not by anyone.

Bob Dylan in 1963

Dylan’s shunning of Sullivan became national news, but that wasn’t the end of it: The storm blew over into CBS’ recording division as well—his label, Columbia Records, had already pressed up copies of Freewheelin’ with “John Birch” included, and now the company’s lawyers were saying the album couldn’t go out with that song. Dylan shrugged, took the opportunity to replace a few other songs on the album, and then sat back as the re-released, edited album rose to #22 on the U.S. Billboard chart—his debut hadn’t made the chart at all.

As for those recalled copies of first pressings of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that contain “John Birch” and the other switched-out songs? The stereo versions of the album are so rare in the wild that copies have sold for as much as $35,000, while the mono can easily net $15,000. Keep your eyes peeled at those garage sales this summer!

Listen to Dylan sing “John Birch Society Blues,” aka “John Birch Paranoid Blues”

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