Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man” in January 1965 as the first track on the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home, which was released in March 1965. By all accounts, Dylan had written the song a year previously in the first months of 1964 until it was recorded during the Another Side of Bob Dylan sessions. He debuted the song in concert on May 17, 1964 in London and premiered it for American audiences at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival:

Besides playing it a few times in select concerts, Dylan mostly kept it to himself until the release of Bringing It All Back Home. It is astonishing to think that Dylan kept this masterpiece in his back pocket most of that time, only performing it as a way of saying, “Oh, you like those songs? Check this out.” What a tremendous ace in the hole.

For the studio recording, the only accompaniment to Dylan and his acoustic guitar is Bruce Langhorne on an additional guitar playing a gentle counter-melody. It was fitting that Langhorne played on the recording as he was the inspiration for the song according to Dylan’s account to Cameron Crowe for the 1985 Biograph box set:

“‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ I think, was inspired by Bruce Langhorne. Bruce was playing guitar with me on a bunch of the early records. On one session, (producer) Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine. It was like, really big. It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind. He was one of those characters…he was like that. I don’t know if I’ve ever told him that. I haven’t seen him in a long time. I wrote some of the song in New Orleans too. I don’t, different things inspired me…that Fellini movie? What was it? La Strada. It was all sort of like the same thing, you know.”

Langhorne played on a number of early Bob Dylan sessions as well as other different recordings, mostly for musicians connected to the New York City folk scene. He was hired by Peter Fonda to compose and perform the soundtrack for Fonda’s 1971 film The Hired Hand. Langhorne’s soundtrack for the film is quiet, minimal, and doom-laden, exhibiting all of the best traits of a true Acid Western:

Back to the song that Langhorne inspired; the dizzying imagery feels as though Dylan is himself in awe of the words that he is writing:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” is a call for escape, a cry of freedom, and a celebration of artistic expression. Despites its kaleidoscopic imagery, the “set and setting” of the song feels well established. Borrowing that phrase from the vernacular of psychedelic drug experiences, “‘Set’ is the mental state a person brings to the experience, like thoughts, mood and expectations. ‘Setting’ is the physical and social environment.” In the case of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the narrator addresses the song directly to an individual — the title character of the song — and the expectations for their adventure are confirmed within the song: “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship.” Later in that verse, the narrator says:

I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Dylan has been accused of being purposefully opaque in his songwriting, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” could be one example of that line of criticism. A gentle and comedic jab at this style of Dylan’s songwriting can be found in the following scene from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the 2007 send-up of musical biopics:

Touché! Yet for the sometimes obtuse nature of his songwriting, “Mr. Tambourine Man” doesn’t really fit into this critique.The melody is gorgeous with beautiful images so much so that I sang the song as a lullaby to my kids. The song even has a chorus! Speaking of putting people to sleep, The Byrds scored a number one hit with their cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man”:

The success of their song led to the recognition of “folk rock” as a genre and introduced the music of Bob Dylan to an even wider audience. The Byrds singer and guitar player and all-around rabble rouser David Crosby claims that it was hearing what The Byrds were able to achieve with his song that inspired Dylan to go electric with his music. All this being said, to this writer’s ears, The Byrds’ version of the song is too soft and sleepy.

Too soft is far from the description being used when Dylan began playing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on tour, especially during the 1966 tour in England. For those performances, Dylan would play a solo acoustic set in which the audiences would listen in rapt silence. There would be a break; Dylan would then re-take the stage with his backing band The Hawks and all hell would break loose. Going back to the solo acoustic set, Dylan would play a combination of already released songs along with tunes from the unheard Blonde on Blonde. Audiences must have been both dazzled and dazed with the selection of songs. Dylan closed those sets with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The “dancing spell” that Dylan cast on those audiences was a result of not only the sometimes surreal lyrics, but also the music he produced with his harmonica solos. Todd Haynes’ 2007 film I’m Not There (previously covered here on Recliner Notes) ends with Dylan’s harmonica solo from “Mr. Tambourine Man” on May 17, 1966 in Manchester, England:

I’m Not There is a movie brimming with surreal images such as a giraffe roaming free in a rural American village or musicians gunning down their audience as a stand-in for the heist movie double-cross of Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. As the main character of the movie, Dylan is presented as a mosaic of different characters, demonstrating his shape-shifting nature. The movie is a psychedelic experience in many ways, so it’s telling that it ends with Dylan playing harmonica. Not the dream-like imagery of the words of “Mr. Tambourine Man” but Dylan as a musician. This is the first and only time in the film that the actual image of Bob Dylan appears in the film. D. A. Pennebaker and his crew — who shot the footage of Dylan during the 1966 tour — present Dylan as a wraith-type figure. Notice the muscles moving on his face as he plays the harmonica causing his cheeks to move in and out of the light. He is inhabiting light and dark all at once. On top of the otherworldly image of Dylan himself on stage, the music that he is summoning from his harmonica seems to be traveling “down the foggy ruins of time.” Sometimes, Dylan’s harmonica plays the sweet melody of “Mr. Tambourine Man;” at other points in the solo, Dylan has left the conventions of the traditional folk instrument behind to explore atonal spaces akin to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” This is truly Dylan at his most hallucinatory and visionary, and he is simply playing harmonica. 

Photo by Jenny Bunn

5 thoughts on “Mr. Tambourine Man

  1. I’ve always heard Tambourine Man as a song of joy about being alive and a giant fuck you to anyone who tries to defile that. It was good to read your interpretation of it as a “call for escape, cry of freedom, and a celebration of artistic expression”. Like the Townshend song “The Seas Refuses No River”, it’s important to remember that everyone is entitled to that simple joy of being alive and the spiritual transcendence that comes from that. Yeah baby.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always thought that harmonica solo was remarkable. I’ve also always thought that weed might have had something to do with this song. Just sayin’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For the 1985 Biograph set, Cameron Crowe asks Dylan about drugs in reference to this song. Dylan replied: “Drugs never played a part in that song…’disappearing in the smoke rings in my mind’, that’s not drugs, drugs were never that big a thing with me. I could take ‘m or leave ‘m, never hung me up.” So for the record, he denies it.


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