May 29, 2017 • 50M

012 – "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"

This podcast is a part of the Pumpkin Papers!

Open in playerListen on);
Not the Bob Dylan podcast you need, but certainly the one you want. We explore Dylan one random song at a time.
Episode details



This song first appeared in Broadside, his first. Famously, he was scheduled to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1962 — which had just broke Elvis and would later break the Beatles. He auditioned the song, people loved it, but when it came down to the show, he was told he couldn’t perform because it could be a “libel” against the John Birch Society. He refused to change the song and walked off the set. National attention followed. Sullivan supported him saying the John Birchers shouldn’t be above criticism.

Stodgy Columbia, learning this was scheduled for Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, pulled the song off the record (less than 300 copies of the album went out). Dylan relented and also pulled “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie”and “Rocks and Gravel.” He replaced them with “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Girl From the North Country” and “Masters of War.” John Hammond said, quoted in Shelton’s No Direction Home:

The CBS lawyers, not Columbia Records, decided that the reference to Hitler involved every single member of the John Birch Society, therefore it was libelous, or some crap like that. I get away with much worse material with Seeger than was ever on a Dylan album.

I couldn’t find the Freewheelin’ version of the song for this recording but we did listen to the 1963 demo (released officially on TBLS Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos) and the Halloween 1964 performance at the Philharmonic Hall (released on TBLS Vol. 6) in addition to the de facto version off TBLS Vol. 1-3.

Song itself

The song is a classic and still finds resonance today. “Reds,” of course were one in a long line of boogeymen the United States has sought to make the Other. The Birchers are the real threats to freedom of speech when everything uttered is “communist.”

The song is our first rendition of the “talking blues,” which he’d use often in this period with “Talkin’ New York,” “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” Talkin’ World War III Blues” and “I Shall Be Free” to name a few (to say nothing of less-talky “T.V. Talkin' Song” off Under the Red Sky.

To Dave Glover

Before going into the history of the John Birch Society, Daniel read Dylan’s 1963 open letter to his friend Dave Glover:

I keep rememberin the songs we used t sing an play
The songs written thirty fifty years ago
The dirt farm songs – the dust bowl songs
The depression songs – the down and out songs
The ol blues and ballads
I think a Woody’s songs
I think a Woody’s day
“This land I’ll defend with my life if it be”
An I say t myself “Yeah that’s right”
“Hitler’s on the march”
“I don’t wan”m takin my ground”
“I don’t wan”m livin on my land”
An I see two side man
I see two roads to pick yer route
The American way or the Fascist way
When there was a strike there’s only two kind of views
An two kinds of tales t tell the news
Thru the unions eyes or thru the bosses eyes
An yuh could stand on a line an look at yer friends
An stand on that same line an see yer foes
It was that easy
“Which Side’re You On” ain’t phony words
An they ain’t from a phony song
An that was Woody’s day man
Two sides
I don know what happened cause I wasn’t aroun but somewhere along
the line a that used t be day things got messed up
More kinds a sides come int’ the story
Folks I guess started switchin sides an makin up their own sides
There got t be so many sides that no eyes could could see the eyes facin’m
There got t be so many sides that all of’m started lookin’ like each other
I don pretend to know what happened man, but somehow all sides lost their
purpose an folks forgot about other folks
I mean they must a all started goin against each other not for the good
a their side but for the good a jes their own selves
An them two simple sides that was so easy t tell apart bashed an
boomed an exploded so hard an heavy that t’day all’ts left and
made for us is the one big rockin rollin
Nowadays folk’s brains’re bamboozled an bowled over by categories
labels an slogans an advertisements that could send anybody’s
head in a spin
It’s hard t believe anybody’s tellin the truth for what that is
I swear it’s true that in some parts a the country folks believe the
finger-pointers more’n the President
It’s the time a the flag wavin shotgun carryin John Birchers
It’s the time a the killer dogs an killer sprays
It’s the time a the billbord sign super flyin highways
It’s the time a the pushbutton foods an five minute fads
It’s the time a the white collar shirt an the white sheeted hood and the
white man’s sun tan lotion
It’s time a guns and grenades an bombs bigger’n any time’s ever seen
It’s the time a Liz Taylor fans – sports fans and electric fans
It’s the time when a twenty year ol colored boy with his head bloody
don get too much thought from the seventy year ol senator who
wants t bomb Cuba
I don’t know who the people were man that let it get this way but they
got what they wanted out a their lives an left me an you facin a
scared raped world

John Birch Society today

JBS, somehow, still lives on today. It’s main activity in the 1960s, according to Rick Perlstein, “comprised monthly meetings to watch a film by Welch, followed by writing postcards or letters to government officials linking specific policies to the Communist menace” (kind of like watching cable news and then tweeting at perceived menaces!)

It’s stances are incredible, mainly for being on the wrong side of history on nearly every issue across decades: Against Civil Rights Act of 1964. Against Equal Rights Amendment. Obsessed with the 10th Amendment. Against all free-trade agreements/globalization. Anti-interventionist. Believes fluoride is a communist conspiracy – which they deny but, come on. Thought Eisenhower was a communist. Against OSHA. Against diplomatic ties to China. Against transferring Panama Canal over to Panamanians because, you know, communists.

But it’s interesting: Antisemitic, racist, anti-Mormon, anti-Masonic groups criticized the organization’s acceptance of Jews, non-whites, Masons, and Mormons as members. And in a bitterly ironic twist, given today’s world where the Right still worships Ayn Rand, in a 1964 Playboy interview, she said,

I consider the Birch Society futile, because they are not for capitalism but merely against communism … I gather they believe that the disastrous state of today’s world is caused by a communist conspiracy. This is childishly naïve and superficial. No country can be destroyed by a mere conspiracy, it can be destroyed only by ideas.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists the society as a “‘Patriot’ Group. It believes a “one world government” is coming so it pushes the US to get out of the United Nations. They still want to dismantle the Federal Reserve. It’s currently led by Ray Clark, who has a fake degree from Donsbaugh University School of Nutrition in Huntington Beach, California – and he puts nutrional supplements in every photo of JBS literature. And, if you want a trip, go to their Twitter to see how hard they’re trying to #hashtag their way into the hearts of the youth.



Recommendations. Kelly recommended Nick Drake and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 while Daniel listened to Chris Stapleton From A Room: Volume 1.


Only 653 songs left.

Kelly guessed #319, which would have been “Bourbon Street” off The Basement Tapes.

It was #642, "God Knows," off 1990's Under the Red Sky.

Follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. See our real-time playlist See That My Playlist is Kept Clean on Spotify. Follow us intermittently on Twitter and Instagram.

Tell your friends about the show, rate and review wherever they let you, and consider supporting us by subscribing or at Patreon.