Song of the Week 28: Mr Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan/The Byrds

“Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me…”

Who is this tambourine man Dylan talks about? Is it a drug reference as some have suggested? Is it Dylan´s muse?The Pied Piper? A religious symbol? Or how about the man with the tambourine who leads the funereal procession in New Orleans? Maybe it´s Bruce Langhorne, who plays guitar on the track? Dylan cited him as original inspiration for the song. Langhorne had a large “tambourine”, a four inch deep, Turkish Frame drum he brought to an earlier Dylan recording session. That´s as close as you´ll get to a straight answer from the man himself.

He was asked in an interview during the 1960´s “What are your songs about?”

His reply was: “Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.”

He talked about the influence of Federico Fellini´s movie La Strada on the song, while others hear echoes of the poetry of Rimbaud.

Dylan began writing Mr Tambourine Man in February 1964 after visiting New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. He composed the song while cris-crossing the country on a road trip, and completed it between mid March and late April after he had returned to New York. Nigel Williamson, in The Rough Guide To Bob Dylan, suggested that you can hear the influence of the Mardi Gras in the swirling flights of fancy in the song´s lyrics. Al Aronowitz, a journalist, claimed he completed the song at his home, while Judy Collins, who would go on to cover the song, claimed that he finished it at her home. In any case, he premiered the song at The Royal Festival Hall in London on May 17th.

The trouble with analysing songs (or poems) is that they´re often open to interpretation. Some are convinced their opinion is sacrosanct. They´ll tell you that it´s definitely about heroin, or LSD, or marijuana, it has to be about the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or Jesus Christ bringing salvation to his flock. People read their own meaning into songs. In the film Imagine, there´s a homeless man who turns up at John Lennon´s Tittenhurt Park estate convinced that The Beatles had written their songs about him.

But Dylan was never a writer that could be pinned down. And he never wanted to be. He wasn´t a confessional writer like Lennon was. And he didn´t want to be the poet laureate, the voice of his generation that everyone, especially the press, expected him to be. He is in his own words “A song and dance man.” Though not much of a dancer. He has a sense of humour. In those 1960´s interviews, he dodges the questions, making fun of the ridiculous inquiries thrown at him.

There´s also ambiguity in his lyrics. For me, the best songs are ambiguous. They´re open to interpretation, but they´re also impervious to it. There´s an expression, to cut a songbird´s throat to find its song. Dylan didn´t wear his heart on his sleeve like Lennon, but that´s because he was a different kind of writer to Lennon. Even on his mid 70´s album Blood on the Tracks, which critics thought was about the break up of his marraige, Dylan replied that it was based on the plays of Chekov.

Although he´d been influenced greatly by Woody Guthrie in the beginning, even to the extent of copying his voice, Dylan´s output in the mid 60´s wasn´t that  plain, simple style of Hemmingway´s: “The writer’s job is to tell the truth.

For Dylan “the truth is just a plain picture”. That wasn´t the type of picture he was interested in painting, and why should a Rembrandt paint a plain picture, when he´s capable of something greater.

Maybe it was the influence of the drugs he was taking (mainly marijuana at this point), or maybe it was just where his muse had taken him. He was sailing on the flow of his inspiration. And the first big change in his music, for me, started with Mr Tambourine Man. It was the first of his hallucinatory, experimental songs, the first to really stray away from the folk template.  He would go on to try to capture “that thin, that wild mercury sound” he could hear in his head. “It´s metallic and bright gold, and whatever that conjures up.”

Was that wild mercury sound in “I Want You”?

“Yeah, it was in “I Want You.” It was in a lot of that stuff. It was in the album before that, too.”

“Highway 61 Revisited”?

“Yeah. Also in “Bringing It All Back Home.” That’s the sound I’ve always heard…”

The period between ´64 and ´66 was an inspired and prolific one. 1964 was also the year when he first appeared on the Beatles´radar, with the Freewheelin´ album.

Dylan was the one who handed a joint to The Beatles, and that works as a nice metaphor for the influence he had on the group. John said: “We all went potty about Dylan.” After hearing Dylan´s music, Lennon´s songs became more adult, more conceptual, more narrative driven. Lennon started by mimicing the style of his mentor on songs like You´ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and Norwegian Wood. Something that didn´t please Dylan. He responded by borrowing the melody of the latter for Fourth Time Around: “I never asked for your crutch, now don´t ask for mine.” That´s a bit rich from someone who borrowed so heavily from folk music, someone who started out, for some, as a Woody Guthrie impersonator. Still what´s the line… “talent borrows, genius steals.” Dylan and The Beatles, both guilty as charged.

“The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you had to explode…”

Instead, Dylan dealth in myth. Even his name wasn´t his own, he was christened Robert Zimmerman. Joni Mitchell isn´t his biggest fan, in light of her recent comments in the LA Times:

“Bob is not authentic at all: He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

I like your stuff a lot Joni, but I still think I prefer Dylan´s night to your day.

By the late 66 the myth had exploded, with the “motorcycle accident”, most likely combined with a mental breakdown due to pressure from all sides, and the excesses of drugs, performing and writing. This led to a withdrawal from society, a conscious change in his musical style, and even the alteration of his singing voice. The next two albums were the mellow, country influenced John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. Fans and critics were bamboozled, and not for the first time. However before he came back down to earth with a bang, we were graced with a burst of creativity that is unparalleled in popular music.

There´s a quote (which I can´t find), it might have been by Bono, that the songwriter doesn´t own his or her songs. Once you´ve recorded or performed them, they´re then the property of the listeners. They leave the concert, whistling the song, they take it home with them. They identify with the song, and put themselves inside it. The best songs in my opinion leave that space for the listener. It´s like reading the book as opposed to watching the film. You fill in the gaps. You use your imagination.

There are certain songs that write themselves, when the muse strikes, the writer just follows. They´re generally the best songs. This is one of those for me.

The song is set in the early morning, the singer has been up late, probably partying, the evening has passed, he´s exhausted but still cannot sleep, and probably doesn´t want to sleep. He´s looking for an escape, whether the tambourine is a metaphor for a drug, or just a song, the singer wants to be taken on a trip, he wants to escape his tiredness and find a new adventure, wherever it leads. And that adventure is an altered state of consciousness, with or without the assistance of substances, a state of euphoria, similar to what the beat writers were seeking. It´s the magic of life, the love of people and song, and he´s captured that in his lyrics. There isn´t a clear explanation for what he´s expressing. You can´t explain that euphoria. You have to experience it. But you can hint at it, and that´s what Dylan does…

Or that´s what the song does. The artist is just a vehicle for the song. It should flow through him. His or her job is to not get in the way of it. There´s a creative frenzy that Jung talks about, where an autonymous complex takes over and writes the poem, writes the song. Often, the writer doesn´t understand what he´s just written, because the writer didn´t really write it.

As with dreams, the unconscious takes over. You tap into the collective unconscious, the mythology. That kind of art, as Jung wrote: “has its source not in the personal unconscious of the poet, but in a sphere of unconscious mythology whose primordial images are the common heritage of mankind. I have called this sphere the collective unconscious, to distinguish it from the personal unconscious.” Maybe we´re getting too deep. 🙂 Don´t worry, there´s more lightness on the way…

So it´s no surprise that he didn´t want to answer journalists´ questions about his songs. It wasn´t his job to analyse them. And that was Dylan´s philosophy on writing: “don´t look back.” If you want to see the young Dylan in action, the D. A. Pennebaker documentary of the same name is required viewing. Here´s a clip and one of the first music videos:

Dylan considered Mr Tambourine Man a special song, and did something he rarely did back then. He re-recorded it. He didn’t go with the first or second take as he so often did at that time. He felt he wanted to do it justice. The first take had been recorded with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot during the sessions for Another Side of Bob Dylan, with Tom Wilson on production duties, but Dylan felt the performance didn’t do it justice. Six months passed before he approached it again, with the same producer, during the Bringing it All Back Home sessions.

Clinton Hylin remembers that the song required six attempts, with Langhorne playing electric lead. The final take was selected for the album, which was released on March 22nd 1965. It´s just acoustic guitar, electric guitar and harmonica and voice. The song is in the key of D, but author Wilfred Mellers noted that it is harmonized as if it were in Lydian G major, which gives it a tonal ambiguity that enhances the bright dreamlike quality of the melody. Here he is singing it live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. The original video I posted has been taken down, but this will do. Close your eyes if you want, and drift away on that “magic swirling ship…”

Apart from the original, there´s another notable recording that many claim gave birth to the new musical style “folk rock”. Even now when you hear The Byrds version, it sounds new, like the dawn of a new age, and that´s what it was.

In August 1964 the newly formed The Jet Set (featuring McGuinn, Clark and Crosby) received an acetate disc of the song that their manager, Jim Dickson, had gotten hold of from Dylan´s publisher. It was the performance by Dylan and Ramblin´ Jack Elliot that Dylan would go on to discard. The band weren´t impressed initially and in an attempt to make it sound more like The Beatles, they gave it a full electric rock band backing, pioneering what would become known as the folk rock sound. Dylan was invited along to hear their progress, and his reaction was:

“Wow, you can dance to that!”

Buoyed by Dylan´s endorsement, the band found new enthusiasm for the song. It was during this time that they incorporated drummer Michael Clarke and bass player Chris Hillman into the set up and then changed their name to The Byrds over Thanksgiving in 1964.

The master take was recorded on January 20th 1965 at Columbia Studios in Hollywood prior to the release of Dylan´s version. It features the unmistakeable 12-string Rickenbacker guitar of McGuinn, and the complex harmony work, which would become the recognisable aspects of their sound. Due to producer Terry Melcher´s lack of confidence in the musicianship of the group, McGuinn would be the only Byrd to play on the single and its B-Side “I Knew I’d Want You”. Melcher hired top L.A. Session Musicians The Wrecking Crew to play the instruments and McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sang harmonies over it. By the time they began recording their debut album, Melcher was confident enough in their abilities to let them record their own musical backing.

The song starts out with a Bach-inspired guitar intro by McGuinn, and like Dylan´s version goes straight into the chorus. Dylan´s version contains four verses, but the Byrds only sing the song´s second verse, followed by two repeats of the chorus, and then fades out over a repetition of the songs introduction. It was Jim Dickson´s idea to shorten the song, so it could be played on commercial radio stations, which would only play songs that were two and a half minutes long. McGuinn sings the lead and modified his singing style to be somewhere between the sound of John Lennon and Bob Dylan. It took on a spiritual significance for him. He told Byrd´s biographer Johnny Rogan in 1997 that:

“I was singing to God and I was saying that God was the Tambourine Man and I was saying to him, ´Hey God, take me for a trip and I´ll follow you.´ It was a prayer of submission.”

Here are The Byrds singing live along to their own backing track just three days after their television debut.

Mr Tambourine Man was the debut single by The Byrds, who were part of California´s Laurel Canyon scene. The Byrds were the first to make it big, and this, their first single hit number 1 in the US and in the UK. It was the first Dylan penned song to achieve that feat. Their success sent shockwaves around the scene and spawned a whole army of folk rock groups, The Turtles, The Leaves, Sonny & Cher, The Lovin´ Spoonful, The Mamas & Papas and Love, inspired by the deep lyrics and those bright jangly guitars… Their sound was also assimilated by The Beatles, whose next album Rubber Soul contained a couple of songs that were a nod in that direction, George´s If I Needed Someone and John´s Nowhere Man. That album in turn inspired another West Coast songwriter, Brian Wilson to make his tour de force Pet Sounds, but that´s a story for another day.

In fact George sent a copy of If I Needed Someone to McGuinn via Derek Taylor, before the song was released, along with the explanation that the riff he played was based on The Byrds The Bells of Rhymney. McGuinn had made the switch from a Gibson acoustic 12 string to a Rickenbacker electric 12 string after seeing George play one in A Hard Day´s Night.

The Beatles loved Mr Tambourine Man and were very complimentary about The Byrds in the press, calling them “the best band in America right now.” That acknowledgement had a big impact on The Byrds, as they considered The Beatles their musical heroes.

“So, in the literal sense, yes, we plugged our amplifiers in and by hook or crook, learned how to play to Rock and Roll. It was actually what made The Byrds unique because we didn’t have a blueprint to follow.” Chris Hillman

In fact, the new folk rock sound wasn´t the only influence they had on The Beatles. On August 24th 1965, the second day of a five day break from their American Tour, The Beatles rented a house in Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, where they were visited by several people, among those Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds.

“There were girls at the gates, police guards. We went in and David, John Lennon, George Harrison and I took LSD to help get to know each other better. There was a large bathroom in the house and we were all sitting on the edge of a shower passing around a guitar, taking turns to play our favourite songs. John and I agreed Be-Bop-A-Lula was our favourite ’50s rock record.

I showed George Harrison some Ravi Shankar sounds, which I’d heard because we shared the same record company, on the guitar. I told him about Ravi Shankar and he said he had never heard Indian music before.

You can hear what I played him from The Byrds’ song Why. I had learned to play it on the guitar from listening to records of Ravi Shankar.”

Indian music and LSD would go on to be key influences in the change in The Beatles music between 1965 and 1968. Peter Fonda was also in attendance, and he came up to John and said the famous line “I know what it´s like to be dead”, which freaked out Lennon and inspired the song She Said, She Said on Revolver.

Although the folk rock sound would go on to change over the years, becoming more country in some hands, and more heavy in others, the jangly sound pioneered by The Byrds can still be heard in the sound of groups such as Fairport Convention, Big Star, The Smiths, The Bangles, Tom Petty, R.E.M.,Teenage Fanclub, The Stone Roses and (last week´s song of the week recipients) The La´s.

If you´ve got time (what else would you be doing?), you might like to check out the brilliant BBC Documentary, From The Byrds to The Eagles, which charts the rise of the folk rock scene in California from innocence of the 1960´s peace and love generation to the decadent drugged up 1970´s.

Also worth checking out is Hotel California (singer songwriters and cocaine cowboys), a novel about the same period by Barney Hoskyns.

It´s getting close to the jingle jangle morning, so I’ll be off. I’ve got to see a man about a tambourine. Till next time…

Lyrics:

Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.

Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wandering
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.

Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

Though you might hear laughing, spinning swinging madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escaping on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facing
And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
Seeing that he’s chasing.

Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
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.

Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

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12 thoughts on “Song of the Week 28: Mr Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan/The Byrds

  1. As a some who passionately love both Joni and Dylan, I sometimes forget they themselves didn’t get along so well. I like what you’ve said about the Bryds. I sometimes think its really unfortunate that the Beatles eclipsed their light, becoming so incredibly popular that I often run into people who don’t realize there were so many other incredible groups playing at that time.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I love Joni Mitchell as well. I may have been unfair on her. I just think Dylan´s back catalogue is as good as it gets. I don´t think there are many who can compete with him. It also seemed kind of personal. Likewise, I love The Byrds. It was definitely difficult to compete with The Beatles. There was lots of great music around in the sixtiesm but I think The Beach Boys were their main competition back then. The Stones were great in their own right, as were The Doors, and The Velvets were a whole other world, but just as influential.

      1. Totally true about the Stones, and they were arguably more influential in the long run. (I don’t actually think that but I’ve heard a convincing argument.)

      2. I think The Stones were very influential. I still think The Beatles were a level above that, but they both have their place, and I love The Stones stuff. The Velvet Underground were right up there with The Beatles for the groups they inspired though. The Beatles influenced the bands who they were contemporaries with, as well as music in general. They brought about the sea change in music, but the Velvets influenced so much of the stuff in the 70s and 80s. They weren´t really appreciated in their time, understandably so, but they rewrote the book. They were unlike anything that had ever come before them.

  2. Great post. I’ve always thought of it is as Bob singing to his own creative muses – musical and otherwise, the people who inspire his imagination.

    Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
    Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
    The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
    Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
    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.

    I think that entire verse is one of the great passages of expression over his entire career and one of the greatest every written by any songwriter. I read it as the ultimate expression of the redemptive and transcendental qualities of the creative process – and for a guy who’s writing can be quite heavy (some critics say many of his songs display clear signs of depression) the imagery of the final lines are powerfully uplifting and hopeful. I think he is singing here about ultimate accession through art – how music and art can give hope, escape, and deeper knowledge – perhaps by somehow connecting with that mysterious stream of common feeling and understanding that Jung writes about. Ultimately this song can only be understood intuitively, which was Dylan’s amazing gift as a writer.

    And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
    To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
    I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
    Seeing that he’s chasing.

    To me, this is Bob talking to his idols, a great creative spirit, he sees himself as the ‘ragged clown’ following in their shadow, in awe of their power, but not wanting them (or us) to take offense to his emulation. I see Bob as my ‘Tambourine Man’ and it is his shadow that I chase – what draws me to it cannot be defined, it cannot be pinned down. The ‘thing’ that he channels that speaks to us intuitively comes from some mysterious place. A shadow indeed, and while I may struggle to grasp the meaning of the mystery – I’ll strive for a moment to forget memories and fates that will ultimately be washed away and buried deep beneath the waves of consciousness, freeing my mind to connect with something greater, and listening to his songs, I too can truly forget about today until tomorrow.

    1. Thanks for the great comment and for stopping by. I love this song too, it´s one of my favourites. It´s pure inspiration, and he succeeded in capturing it both lyrically and musically.

      I can understand why he considered it such a special song. He´s a big inspiration for me too.

      He said when he saw Elvis in concert that he was bowled over and he felt Elvis was passing on a torch to him. I had a similar feeling when I saw Bob play in Kilkenny a few years ago. The gig was so inspiring. He played for 3 hours. It was before arthiritis had set in, so he was still playing guitar. He really appreciated the croud, and seemed to get energy from them.

      That week I wrote a lot of songs and felt that inspiration too. It was a very creative time for me. I feel honoured to have seen him live. He´s one of those artists that let creativity flow right through him. It´s a gift. Pity there aren´t more like him these days. There´s too much emphasis on image and marketing. Bob was an introvert. He was kind of a reluctant performer, and he certainly didn´t care much for all the attention he got. His direction was inwards, and that´s where he did his work.

      Not enough introspection going on these days in the pop world. There is still great music around, but it´s been a while since there´s been such a body of work. It´s difficult for such authentic artists to break through though. The 60s was really a golden time for music. I´m not too wistful though. I feel the best is yet to come.

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