Friday, October 4, 2013

Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues... Young Dylan Has Some Serious Fun

A couple evenings ago I was reading a book about the conservative movement in American politics these past 70 years and in one section the author brought up the rise of the John Birch Society. Two thoughts came to mind simultaneously. One was the tract that one of the kids on our school bus handed me when I was in sixth grade or thereabouts. The second was the 1963 incident in which Bob Dylan was asked not to play the song he’d selected for the May 12, 1963 Ed Sullivan Show, his Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues. And because he wouldn't play any alternative, they said he couldn't perform. He chose to walk, which made him something of a legend among peers who would have gladly made this compromise in order to get the chance to be associated with one of the most influential television shows of all time. Both The Doors and Stones were willing to change their tunes to remain on the bill.

What I remember about the tract is only this. It began with the establishment of its credibility by being somehow associated with the founder of Welch's Grape Jelly. Actually, it may not have said that at all, and the kid on the bus told me that. I was a deeply devoted fan of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and my mom usually bought Welch’s Concord Grape Jelly for those sandwiches which she dutifully made for us each and every morning to put in our brown bag lunches for school.

For some reason I also recall a spookiness about the John Birch Society. Though birthed in 1958, it's influence grew significant enough that Willliam F. Buckley Jr. denounced it as a fringe element of the Conservative movement. He recognized that many of its published ideas were out in left field, or further, such as the belief that fluoridated water was a communist plot. In an editorial at the time he wrote, "How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense?"

Mad magazine made fun of the John Birchers as did Simon & Garfunkel in their Dylan parody "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)" which appeared on their third album Parsely, Sage, Rosemarie and Thyme. ("I'm communist cuz I'm left-handed.")

Despite its fringe views the John Birch Society spoke to the core of what was on a lot of people's minds: the Red Scare days of the early Sixties where people were building bomb shelters in their basements and practicing air raid drills in school. The Atomic Clock felt like it was getting close to midnight for a lot of people, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Dylan later claimed was the trigger that pushed him to compress so much content into his now classic "Hard Rain."

What most likely got Dylan banned from the Sullivan show was his verse on Hitler. The song's satirical approach was probably over the heads of the show's content watchdogs who took the lyrics a little too literally.

Though the song was only performed thirteen times between 1962 in Carnegie Hall and 1965, and never released as a recording, its influence was far-reaching amongst his peers who saw him as a representative of non-compromising artistic standards. His recording of the song was finally released on the first of his several Bootleg Series sets, Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3: Rare and Unreleased 1961-1963. Don't have it? Get it.

Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues

Well, I was feelin’ sad and feelin’ blue
I didn’t know what in the world I wus gonna do
Them Communists they wus comin’ around
They wus in the air
They wus on the ground

They wouldn’t gimme no peace . . .
So I run down most hurriedly
And joined up with the John Birch Society
I got me a secret membership card
And started off a-walkin’ down the road
Yee-hoo, I’m a real John Bircher now!
Look out you Commies!

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

Well, I wus lookin’ everywhere for them gol-darned Reds
I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed
Looked in the sink, behind the door
Looked in the glove compartment of my car
Couldn’t find ’em . . .

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 . . .
Well, I wus sittin’ home alone an’ started to sweat
Figured they wus in my T.V. set
Peeked behind the picture frame
Got a shock from my feet, hittin’ right up in the brain
Them Reds caused it!

I know they did . . . them hard-core ones
Well, I quit my job so I could work all alone
Then I changed my name to Sherlock Holmes
Followed some clues from my detective bag
And discovered they wus red stripes on the American flag!
That ol’ Betsy Ross . . .

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

Well, I fin’ly started thinkin’ straight
When I run outa things to investigate
Couldn’t imagine doin’ anything else
So now I’m sittin’ home investigatin’ myself!
Hope I don’t find out anything . . . hmm, great God!

Copyright © 1970 by Special Rider Music; renewed 1998 by Special Rider Music 

1 comment:

arden said...

Spot on given the political climate. You might like this recently published book by an author who grew up in a family entwined in the Bircher's inner circle. It was very interesting to see the parallels between today's tea-party and the bircher movement. There were even some of the same financial players (Fred Koch was a founding member).