The Real Reason Bob Dylan Walked Out On The Ed Sullivan Show

By the mid '60s, Bob Dylan was known for toying with the media as much as he was known for his songwriting; most famously, in 1965 when he cryptically answered questions in a San Francisco press conference on the eve of his biggest tour to date (posted on YouTube). Asked if he thought of himself as primarily a singer or a poet, the future Nobel laureate replied he thought of himself as a song-and-dance man. One of Dylan's earliest confrontations with the media, though, came two years before that. This time, on TV, when he walked out on "The Ed Sullivan Show," in 1963. 

Legend surrounding that incident says Dylan refused to perform in dramatic fashion over an issue of artistic integrity. At that time Dylan had released only one album, but was already known for his performance at the March on Washington, the hit "Blowin' In The Wind" as an icon of the Civil Right Movement, and for those opposing the war in Vietnam (per History). The real reason Dylan walked out on "The Ed Sullivan Show," however, goes to show that when it comes to an artist as mysterious as Dylan can sometimes be, it's hard to separate fact from fiction.

There was a change of plans

Dylan intended to perform his song "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" on The Ed Sullivan Show, and he had even auditioned the tune for the influential TV variety show host (pictured above). As the History article relates, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" is a funny, blues-inspired tune lampooning McCarthyism and the anti-communist sentiments of the time. Legend says that Bob Dylan blew up and walked out on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (a program he never would appear on) when he found out he had to change the song he would be performing.

The real story, though, is that instead of throwing a fit worthy of a rock star of his stature, Dylan calmly declined the offer to perform at the very last moment. According to History, "Ed Sullivan" producer Bob Precht later recalled that Dylan was quite polite when he made his choice. It's true that Dylan refused to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show" when he was told by CBS censors that he would not, in fact, be able to perform "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" on the air, over concerns about the song's lyrics. It's the manner in which Dylan declined to perform where fact diverts from fiction.