Song Of The Day 6/29/2015: Bob Dylan – “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”

Talkin' Talkin' Blues Blues Week: The talking blues is a maddeningly simple yet efficacious form of folk storytelling. The basic construct could be played by anyone who could master G, C and D chords on an acoustic guitar in standard tuning (or A, D and E, if that C chord is too burdensome). That’s about 75% of everybody, I would suspect. Lyrically talking blues are spoken-word monologues delivered in verses of four rhyming lines and at least one, maybe more untimed lines that illustrate the point in the previous four, usually via a one-liner or throwaway joke. The rhyme scheme would therefore be A-A-B-B-who cares. Anyone with the least bit of creativity and a good sense for zingers can create a talking blues at the drop of a hat. Hey, let’s just make up a verse here:
1st line: I was hungry for some carbs and starches
2nd line: So I went down to the Golden Arches
3rd line: The guy at the counter gave me a bib
4th line: An’ said “How’ bout you try this here McRib?”
Free line (a): I said, “Where’r the bones? You sellin’ me a rib sandwich with no ribs!”
Free line (b): Guy said, “Then go get a Doritos Loco Taco, dumbass.”
See how easy it is? Instant hootenanny cred.

We’ll get into the origins of the talking blues tomorrow, but obviously the form was a no-brainer tool for the folkies who sprung from Woody Guthrie’s wake (we’ll cover him this week too). Dylan caught on to it in his early years, with tracks like “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Talkin’ New York” and “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre.” (“Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues” was a bit minimalist.)

“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” however, got Dylan in a spot of trouble. Taking aim at the ultra-right John Birch Society, who at the time were shedding their feathers over the possibility of Communist infiltration of America, the song was a funny and truthfully harmless poke at oversuspicious hysteria. And of course the haughty and humorless lost their shit over it.

The furor caused Dylan to cancel a 1963 appearance on the hugely favored Ed Sullivan Show, after CBS censors and lawyers issued a last-minute request that Dylan pick another song to perform. The tall tale says that Dylan angrily stormed off the set, but a Sullivan producer later claimed that Dylan very politely declined to appear if he couldn’t do the song. Sullivan himself had Dylan’s back, publicly criticizing the action by CBS (who coincidentally owned Dylan’s label) and creating some free publicity for him without his ever appearing on his show. You can judge for yourself if “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” is an inoperable cancer on the vital organs of freedom.

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