Mr. Tambourine Man
|"Mr. Tambourine Man"|
|Song by Bob Dylan from the album Bringing It All Back Home|
|Released||March 22, 1965 (album)|
|Recorded||January 15, 1965, Columbia Recording Studios, New York City|
|Bringing It All Back Home track listing|
|"Mr. Tambourine Man"|
1965 Dutch picture sleeve.
|Single by The Byrds|
|from the album Mr. Tambourine Man|
|B-side||"I Knew I'd Want You"|
|Released||April 12, 1965|
|Format||7" single[a 1]|
|Recorded||January 20, 1965, Columbia Studios, Hollywood, CA|
|The Byrds singles chronology|
"Mr. Tambourine Man" is a song written, composed, and performed by Bob Dylan, who released his original version of it on his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. The Byrds also recorded a version of the song that they released in the same year as their first single on Columbia Records, reaching number 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK Singles Chart, as well as being the title track of their first album, Mr. Tambourine Man. The Byrds' recording of the song was influential in initiating the musical subgenre of folk rock, leading many contemporary bands to mimic its fusion of jangly guitars and intellectual lyrics in the wake of the single's success.
This song has been covered by many artists, including Judy Collins, Odetta, Melanie, and William Shatner. The song's popularity led to Dylan recording it live many times, and it has been included in multiple Dylan and Byrds compilation albums. It has been translated into other languages, and has been used or referenced in television shows, films and books.
The song has a bright, expansive melody and has become famous in particular for its surrealistic imagery, influenced by artists as diverse as French poet Arthur Rimbaud and Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. The lyrics call on the title character to play a song and the narrator will follow. Interpretations of the lyrics have included a paean to drugs such as LSD, a call to the singer's muse, a reflection of the audience's demands on the singer, and religious interpretations. Dylan sings the song in four verses, of which The Byrds used only the second for their recording. Dylan's and The Byrds' versions have appeared on various lists ranking the greatest songs of all time, including an appearance by both on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 best songs ever. Both versions also received Grammy Hall of Fame Awards.
Bob Dylan's version
Composition and recording
"Mr. Tambourine Man" was written and composed in early 1964, at the same approximate time as "Chimes of Freedom," which Dylan recorded later that spring for his album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Dylan began writing and composing "Mr. Tambourine Man" in February 1964, after attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans during a cross-country road trip with several friends, and completed it sometime between the middle of March and late April of that year after he had returned to New York. Nigel Williamson has suggested in The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan that the influence of Mardi Gras can be heard in the swirling and fanciful imagery of the song's lyrics. Journalist Al Aronowitz has claimed that Dylan completed the song at his home, but folk singer Judy Collins, who later covered the song, has stated that Dylan completed the song at her home. Dylan premiered the song the following month at a May 17 concert at London's Royal Festival Hall.
Dylan first recorded "Mr. Tambourine Man" a few weeks later, on June 9, with Tom Wilson producing, during the Another Side of Bob Dylan session. The take, recorded with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, was cut from the album because Dylan felt the song was special and their performance did not do it justice. Sometime that month he also recorded a publisher demo of the song at Witmark Music. More than six months passed before Dylan re-recorded the song, again with Wilson in the producer's chair, during the final Bringing It All Back Home session on January 15, 1965, the same day that "Gates of Eden," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" were recorded. It was long thought that the four songs were each recorded in one long take. However, in the biography Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades, Clinton Heylin relates that the song required six attempts, possibly because of difficulties in working out the playoffs between Dylan's acoustic guitar and Bruce Langhorne's electric lead. The final take was selected for the album, which was released on March 22, 1965.
In his book Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager describes "Mr. Tambourine Man" as having a bright, expansive melody, with Langhorne's electric guitar accompaniment, which provides a countermelody to the vocals, being the only instrumentation besides Dylan's acoustic guitar and harmonica. Author Wilfred Mellers has noted that although the song is in the key of D major, it is harmonized as if it were in a Lydian G major, giving the song a tonal ambiguity that enhances the dreamy quality of the melody. Unusually, rather than beginning with the first verse, the song begins with an iteration of the chorus:
- 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.
William Ruhlmann, writing for the Allmusic website, has suggested the following interpretation of the song's lyrics: "The time seems to be early morning following a night when the narrator has not slept. Still unable to sleep, though amazed by his weariness, he is available and open to Mr. Tambourine Man's song, and says he will follow him. In the course of four verses studded with internal rhymes, he expounds on this situation, his meaning often heavily embroidered with imagery, though the desire to be freed by the tambourine man's song remains clear."
There has been speculation that the song is about drugs such as LSD or marijuana, particularly with lines such as "take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship" and "the smoke rings of my mind." Dylan has always denied the song is about drugs, and though he was using marijuana at the time the song was written, he was not introduced to LSD until a few months later. Other commentators have interpreted the song as a call to the singer's spirit or muse, or the singer's search for transcendence. In particular, biographer John Hinchey has suggested in his book Like a Complete Unknown that the singer is praying to his muse for inspiration; Hinchey notes that ironically the song itself is evidence the muse has already provided the sought-after inspiration. Mr. Tambourine Man has also been interpreted as a symbol for Jesus Christ and for the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The song may also reference gospel music, with Mr. Tambourine Man being the bringer of religious salvation.
Dylan has cited the influence of Federico Fellini's movie La strada on the song, while other commentators have found echoes of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. Author Howard Sounes has identified the lyrics "in the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you" as having been taken from a Lord Buckley recording. Bruce Langhorne, who performs guitar on the track, has been cited by Dylan as the inspiration for the tambourine man image in the song. Langhorne used to play a giant, four-inch-deep "tambourine" (actually a Turkish frame drum), and had brought the instrument to a previous Dylan recording session.
The Bringing it All Back Home version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was included on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits in 1967 and several later Dylan compilation albums, including Biograph, Masterpieces, and The Essential Bob Dylan. The two June 1964 recordings, one with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and the other at Witmark Music, have been released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home and The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos 1962–1964, respectively.
The song has been in Dylan's live concert repertoire ever since it was written, and live performances have appeared on various concert albums and DVDs. A live performance at New York's Philharmonic Hall dating from October 31, 1964, appeared on The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall. During his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, after he was heckled by acoustic folk music fans during his electric set, Dylan returned to play acoustic versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue;" this performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man" is included in both Murray Lerner's film The Other Side of the Mirror and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home.
A live version from Dylan's famous May 17, 1966, concert in Manchester, England (popularly but mistakenly known as the Royal Albert Hall Concert) is included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert. Dylan also played the song as part of his evening set at the August 1, 1971, Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit concert organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. That performance is included on The Concert For Bangladesh album, although it was excluded from the film of the concert. Another live version from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975 is on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue, and yet another live version from 1978 is on Bob Dylan at Budokan.
The Byrds' version
Release and the birth of folk rock
"Mr. Tambourine Man" was the debut single by the American band The Byrds and was released on April 12, 1965 by Columbia Records. The song was also the title track of the band's debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man, which was released on June 21, 1965. The single, along with the album of the same name, was influential in originating the musical style known as folk rock, with the single becoming the first folk rock smash hit. Indeed, the term "folk rock" was first coined by the U.S music press to describe the band's sound at around the same time as "Mr. Tambourine Man" peaked at number 1 on the Billboard chart.
The single initiated the folk rock boom of 1965 and 1966, with many acts imitating the band's hybrid of a rock beat, jangly guitar playing and poetic or socially conscious lyrics. This hybrid had its antecedents in the American folk revival of the early 1960s, The Animals's rock-oriented recording of the folk song "The House of the Rising Sun," the folk-influences present in the songwriting of The Beatles, and the twelve-string guitar jangle of The Searchers and The Beatles's George Harrison. However, it was The Byrds who first melded these disparate elements into a unified whole, creating a template for folk rock that would prove successful for many acts during the mid-1960s.
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Most of the members of The Byrds had a background in folk music, since Jim McGuinn, as he was then known, Gene Clark, and David Crosby had all worked as folk singers during the early 1960s. They had also spent time, independently of each other, in various folk groups, including The New Christy Minstrels, The Limeliters, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and Les Baxter's Balladeers. In early 1964, McGuinn, Clark and Crosby formed The Jet Set and started developing a fusion of folk-based lyrics and melodies, with arrangements in the style of The Beatles. In August 1964, the band's manager Jim Dickson acquired an acetate disc of "Mr. Tambourine Man" from Dylan's publisher, featuring a performance by Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Although the band members were initially unimpressed with the song, they eventually agreed to begin rehearsing and demoing it. In an attempt to make it sound more like The Beatles, the band and Dickson elected to give the song a full, electric rock band treatment, effectively creating the musical subgenre of folk rock. To further bolster the group's confidence in the song, Dickson invited Dylan to hear the band's rendition. Dylan was impressed, enthusiastically commenting, "Wow, you can dance to that!" His endorsement erased any lingering doubts the band had about the song. During this period, drummer Michael Clarke and bass player Chris Hillman joined, and the band changed their name to The Byrds over Thanksgiving 1964. The two surviving demos of "Mr. Tambourine Man" dating from this period feature an incongruous marching band drum part from Clarke but overall the arrangement, which utilized a 4/4 time signature instead of Dylan's 2/4 configuration, is very close to the later single version.
The master take of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was recorded on January 20, 1965, at Columbia Studios in Hollywood, prior to the release of Dylan's own version. The song's jangling, melodic guitar playing (performed by McGuinn on a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar) was immediately influential and has remained so to the present day. The group's complex harmony work, as featured on "Mr. Tambourine Man," became another major characteristic of their sound. Due to producer Terry Melcher's initial lack of confidence in The Byrds' musicianship, McGuinn was the only Byrd to play on both "Mr. Tambourine Man" and its B-side, "I Knew I'd Want You." Rather than using band members, Melcher hired The Wrecking Crew, a collection of top L.A. session musicians, who (with McGuinn on guitar) provided the backing track over which McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark sang. By the time the sessions for their debut album began in March 1965, however, Melcher was satisfied that the band was competent enough to record its own musical backing. Much of the track's arrangement and final mixdown was modeled after Brian Wilson's production work for the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby".
The Byrds' recording of the song opens with a distinctive, Bach-inspired guitar introduction played by McGuinn and then, like Dylan's version, goes into the song's chorus. Although Dylan's version contains four verses, The Byrds only perform the song's second verse and two repeats of the chorus, followed by a variation on the song's introduction, which then fades out. The Byrds' arrangement of the song had been shortened during the band's rehearsals at World Pacific Studios in 1964, at the suggestion of Jim Dickson, in order to accommodate commercial radio stations, which were reluctant to play songs that were over two-and-a-half minutes long. Thus, while Dylan's version is five-and-a-half minutes long, The Byrds' runs just short of two-and-a-half minutes. The lead vocal on The Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was sung by McGuinn, who attempted to modify his singing style to fill what he perceived as a gap in the popular music scene of the day, somewhere between the vocal sound of John Lennon and Bob Dylan. The song also took on a spiritual aspect for McGuinn during the recording sessions, as he told The Byrds' biographer Johnny Rogan in 1997: "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."
The single reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 1 on the UK Singles Chart, making it the first recording of a Dylan song to reach number 1 on any pop music chart. Critic William Ruhlmann has argued that in the wake of "Mr. Tambourine Man", the influence of The Byrds could be heard in recordings by a number of other Los Angeles-based acts, including The Turtles, The Leaves, Barry McGuire, and Sonny & Cher. In addition, author and music historian Richie Unterberger sees the influence of The Byrds in recordings by The Lovin' Spoonful, The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and Love, while author John Einarson has noted that both The Grass Roots and We Five enjoyed commercial success by emulating The Byrds' folk rock sound. In addition, a number of commentators, including Richie Unterberger, Scott Plangenhoef, and Ian MacDonald have noted that by late 1965, The Beatles themselves were assimilating the sound of folk rock, and in particular The Byrds, into the material found on their Rubber Soul album, most notably on the songs "Nowhere Man" and "If I Needed Someone".
As the 1960s came to a close, folk rock changed and evolved away from the jangly template pioneered by The Byrds, but, Unterberger argues, the band's influence could still be heard in the music of Fairport Convention. Since the 1960s, The Byrds' jangly, folk rock sound has continued to influence popular music up to the present day, with authors Chris Smith, Johnny Rogan, Mark Deming and Stephen Thomas Erlewine all noting the band's influence on such acts as Big Star, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., The Long Ryders, The Smiths, The Bangles, The Stone Roses, Teenage Fanclub, and The La's.
In addition to appearing on The Byrds' debut album, "Mr. Tambourine Man" is included on several Byrds' compilation and live albums, including The Byrds Greatest Hits, Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971, The Very Best of The Byrds, The Essential Byrds, The Byrds Play Dylan, and the live disc of The Byrds' (Untitled) album. The Byrds' version of the song also appears on compilation albums that include hit songs by multiple artists. Two earlier demo recordings of "Mr. Tambourine Man", dating from the World Pacific rehearsal sessions, can be heard on The Byrds' archival albums Preflyte, In the Beginning, and The Preflyte Sessions.
Other covers and references
"Mr. Tambourine Man" has been covered by many artists over the years, including at least 13 versions recorded in 1965 alone. The Brothers Four recorded a commercial version before the Byrds, but were unable to release it due to licensing issues. In addition, notable recordings of the song have been made by Odetta, Judy Collins, Stevie Wonder, The Four Seasons, The Barbarians, and Chad and Jeremy. Other artists who have covered the song include Alvin and the Chipmunks (1965), The Beau Brummels (1966), The Lettermen (1966), Kenny Rankin (1967), Melanie (1968), Gene Clark (1984), Les Fradkin (2007), Bob Sinclar (2009), Jack's Mannequin (2012), and The Flowers of Hell (2012). William Shatner also covered the song in a spoken-word recitation on his 1968 album, The Transformed Man. A reunited line-up of The Byrds, featuring Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby, performed "Mr. Tambourine Man" with Dylan at a Roy Orbison tribute concert on February 24, 1990. This live performance of the song was included on the 1990 box set, The Byrds. At the October 1992 Bob Dylan 30th anniversary tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, McGuinn performed the song, backed by Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench, among others.
The song has been translated and recorded in a number of languages. Müslüm Gürses has covered the song with different lyrics written in Turkish. The Turkish version of the song was called Hayat Berbat. It was translated into Romanian by Florian Pittiş, and sung by Pasărea Colibri on their 1995 album În căutarea cuibului pierdut. There are also at least two Brazilian Portuguese versions of the song, covered by Zé Ramalho and Zé Geraldo on their Zé Ramalho canta Bob Dylan and Catadô de Bromélias albums respectively.
"Mr. Tambourine Man" has also been referenced in books and film, including Tom Wolfe's nonfiction novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Stephen King's book Carrie, the film Dangerous Minds, and the documentary film Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The subject of the latter film, journalist Hunter S. Thompson, had "Mr. Tambourine Man" played at his funeral and dedicated his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Dylan because of the song. The song was also performed by Pete Townshend at the funeral of Neil Aspinall, The Beatles' road manager and personal assistant.
The Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was listed as the number 79 song on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Dylan's version was ranked number 106. It is one of three songs to place twice, along with "Walk This Way" by both Aerosmith and Run-DMC with Perry and Tyler, and "Blue Suede Shoes" by both Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. The Byrds' version was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998, and Dylan's version was honored with the same award in 2002.
In 1989 Rolling Stone ranked The Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" as the number 86 single of the prior 25 years. That same year, music critic Dave Marsh listed it as number 207 in his list of the top 1001 singles ever made. In 1999, National Public Radio in the United States listed this version as one of the 300 most important American records of the 20th century. In the UK, music critic Colin Larkin listed The Byrds' version as the number 1 single of all time. Other UK publishers that have listed this song as one of the top songs or singles include Mojo, New Musical Express, and Sounds. Australian music critic Toby Creswell included the song in his book 1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories and Secrets Behind Them.
In a 2005 reader's poll reported in Mojo, Dylan's version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was listed as the number 4 all-time greatest Bob Dylan song, and a similar poll of artists ranked the song number 14. In 2002, Uncut listed it as the number 15 all-time Dylan song.
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"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" by The Four Tops
|Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
(The Byrds version)
June 26, 1965 (one week)
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones
by The Hollies
|UK number one single
(The Byrds version)
July 22, 1965 (two weeks)
"Help!" by The Beatles