Dylan hardly needs to justify himself
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Forty-eight years ago this month, Bob Dylan was scheduled to perform "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues" on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the most popular variety show in America.
An invitation to perform on Ed Sullivan's Sunday night program seven years after Elvis did, and a year before the Beatles, was quite a coup for a scruffy folk singer with a mere two albums under his belt.
In fact, the 22-year-old's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," wouldn't hit the streets until the following month, so he needed the exposure on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1963 far more than it needed him.
When Mr. Sullivan heard Mr. Dylan's satirical take on the "Birchers" during rehearsal, he was knocked out by it. It was just the kind of sarcastic, subversive song the country needed to hear as it slowly emerged from the McCarthyite chill of the 1950s.
Alas, the CBS censors couldn't see the humor in courting controversy. They considered the song libelous against the John Birch Society and told the virtually unknown Mr. Dylan he couldn't perform it.
Mr. Dylan was invited to perform any other original song from a growing catalog that included the brand new "Blowin' in the Wind," a song that would soon be embraced by the civil rights movement.
Instead of accommodating the censors, Bob Dylan packed up his guitar and walked off the set into the Manhattan evening. He had a clear conscience; he also knew he had earned a ton of publicity for being the first performer to ever walk off "The Ed Sullivan Show."
His friends and rivals in the Greenwich Village folk circuit thought he was crazy for not simply substituting any number of less gimmicky songs in his repertoire.
The censorship controversy put Bob Dylan on the map, though "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues" was also stripped from his second album at the last minute by paranoid lawyers.
That didn't stop Mr. Dylan from singing it in concert for a year or so before he got bored with it. Even though it was popular with audiences, it ran its course and accomplished its purpose fairly quickly.
Fast forward to Mr. Dylan's first performance ever in China this week: Standing on the stage in Beijing with his band, Mr. Dylan knew that 2,000 of the venue's 5,000 seats were occupied by Communist Party apparatchiks.
In previous years, he refused to sign a pledge drawn up by the Chinese Ministry of Culture that obligated him "not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" by performing counterrevolutionary songs. The Chinese censors put "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin' " on the list of songs he couldn't perform.
We don't know whether Mr. Dylan finally signed the pledge, but he was allowed to perform in Beijing this week. Mr. Dylan, who turns 70 next month, did not perform the "banned" songs and is not expected to do so during his time in China, including a concert in Shanghai today.
Many of Mr. Dylan's fans in the West were disappointed that he didn't include the two iconic songs named above in the historic set, or say something on behalf of Beijing artist/dissident Ai Weiwei, who was taken into custody recently by the secret police. Mr. Ai's whereabouts remain unknown, but an international effort to free him has already begun.
How could the man who walked out on a gig on "The Ed Sullivan Show" not stand up for a similar principle when singing his songs nearly a half century later?
It could be because Bob Dylan stood on that stage in Beijing knowing that everyone in the room had access to every song he's ever recorded, including bootlegs he hasn't officially released.
He didn't need to grandstand or say things he wouldn't say to a Western audience. By not performing two songs the government objected to from a 17-song set, Mr. Dylan was not depriving the audience of the full force of his prophetic imagination. He played "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Like a Rolling Stone" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," so the censors obviously missed the point.
Truly curious audience members have only to download his music from file-sharing sites on the Internet if they want to see why a man with such an odd voice scares their government. Mr. Dylan's songs are beyond censorship now.
By simply being in China and performing his songs his way, Bob Dylan was taking the only stand that matters. He was embodying freedom in a ruthless world.
First Published April 8, 2011 12:00 am