Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues (Paranoid Blues): the meaning and the music

By Tony Attwood

Written in early 1962, and performed in Carnegie Hall that year, this is one of two songs I have selected that were written between the phenomenal Ballad for a Friend and Blowing in the Wind.  The other is the Robert Johnson inspired “Standing on the Highway”.  Both are, to me, monumentally important in terms of understanding Dylan’s early development.

Musically there isn’t too much to say – it is a talking blues, and these talking blues are all pretty much the same musically.  It’s taken at speed, and first time through it’s easy to miss something, which is exactly how talking blues should be.  Everything is pretty much in the words, except the fact that the music is knockabout, which makes up the feeling of the lyrics.

The song’s theme is simple – there are commie bastards out there trying to get me, you and all of us.

But really to understand this one needs to know a little about the John Birch Society.  In what follows there is my usual caveat: I’m an English guy writing about US history and politics.  If I have made an error here, my apologies – I never mean to claim I can understand the US as well as a citizen of the country can.  But sometimes the background needs to be covered.  And I know you’ll correct me where I go wrong.

So, the JBS was set up in 1958 and named after a missionary and military intelligence officer who was killed in China in 1945.  Their fundamental view seems to be to be encapsulated in the statement by their founder that,”both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians.”

Which is interesting because that is pretty much what the anarchist movement in Britain in the early part of the 20th century felt.

But the difference is that the JBS was anti-civil rights, and the movement for civil rights was seen as an organisation set up by the Community Party to undermine the US government.

Although far less influential today the Society is still there, and still seeks a removal of the country from the UN, and opposes all military action by the US overseas.

What adds to the interest is that in 1962 Dylan was auditioned to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, but didn’t hear anything further from the CBS network.   He carried on working and the song was set to be a part of Freewheelin, and early pressings of the album had the song on it.  Then a year or so later Dylan was invited to perform on the show 12 May 1963.

Dylan chose “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” and played it to Sullivan and the producer who according to reports loved the whole experience.  But by the time of the dress rehearsal 24 hours later,  he was told to cut the song and sing something else, apparently because lawyers thought the John Birch Society might sue on the grounds that the song equated the John Birch views with the actions of Hitler, and the link the song expressed with George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party.

Dylan refused to change songs and the media picked up the story.  Ed Sullivan, it seems, backed Dylan but the network wouldn’t back down.

But since Columbia Records, with whom Dylan had a record contract, was part of CBS, they then demanded that the song be removed from Freewheelin.  Dylan had no option but to agree – he had no obligation to perform for Ed Sullivan but he did have a legal obligation to produce an album.  Besides which, without the album, he’d have a very limited future as a songwriter.

Although of course I have not seen the record contract I do know that in my musical and literary career contracts always include an assertion by the artist that there is nothing actionable in the artwork, and that if action is taken by an outside party for (for example) defamation, the artist has to carry the can.  Also the publisher / record label has the right to require changes if in the opinion of the publisher / record company anything is thought to be potentially actionable.

Dylan seemingly used the event to recast a whole chunk of Freewheelin and removed several older songs and bringing in, instead,  “Masters of War”, “Girl from the North Country”, “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues”.  So we got our talking blues anyway, and Dylan got a huge amount of positive publicity.

Dylan then regularly performed the song with reference to CBS and it ultimately it appeared on two of the bootleg albums.

Interestingly although Dylan refused to back down, when the Rolling Stones were told to change “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”, the band, at that time the epitome of the youth rebellion, quite simply obliged.   The Doors said they would change their lyrics, but then didn’t, neither leaving the band with much credence – in my opinion.

In Dylan’s song, the singer joins the Society and says,

Now we all agree with Hitler’s views
Although he killed six million Jews
It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist
At least you can’t say he was a Communist!
That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria

He goes searching for Communists everywhere…

I wus lookin’ high an’ low for them Reds everywhere
I wus lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl
They got away . . .

Not finding them he gets worried and looks ever harder, becomes worried because the US flag has red in it, but carries on the search.

Well, I investigated all the books in the library
Ninety percent of ’em gotta be burned away
I investigated all the people that I knowed
Ninety-eight percent of them gotta go
The other two percent are fellow Birchers . . . just like me

Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy
Lincoln, Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy
To my knowledge there’s just one man
That’s really a true American: George Lincoln Rockwell
I know for a fact he hates Commies cus he picketed the movie Exodus

and then finally he goes off and investigates himself.   Nice one Bob.

The meaning of course is clear – Bob is having a laugh at people who have beliefs for which there is no evidence as such – just a set of events put together from which conclusions are reached.  The fact is other, simpler, conclusions could equally be reached, so there is no reason to reach the more outrageous conclusions.

The maxim that when there are multiple explanations around, the simplest one usually is the best one, and the one most likely to be right, doesn’t always help us understand the world (gravity is hard to explain that way, so is quantum mechanics), but most of the time it works.

Don’t go looking for convoluted explanations, unless everything else fails to explain what we see.  That usually works.

All the songs reviewed on this site

Bob Dylan songs in chronological order

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