Keys To The Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (continued)

"Mr. Tambourine Man"

"Mr. Tambourine Man" (Bob Dylan)

• Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home (1965); Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967); Bob Dylan at Budokan (1979); Biograph/'64 (1985); The Bootleg Series, Volume 5: Live 1975—The Rolling Thunder Revue (2002); The Bootleg Series, Volume 6: Live 1964—Concert at Philharmonic Hall (2004)
• Bob Dylan/Various Artists (performed by Roger McGuinn and Tom Petty), Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993)
• Various Artists (performed by Bob Dylan), The Concert for Bangladesh (1972); More American Graffiti (soundtrack) (1979)
• The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965); The Byrds' Greatest Hits (1967); Untitled (1970); Original Singles, Volume 1 (1965–1967) (1980); The Byrds (1990); Definitive Collection (1995); Super Hits (1998)
• Odetta, Odetta Sings Dylan (1965)
• Judy Collins, 5th Album (1965); Recollections: The Best of Judy Collins (1969)
• The Barbarians, Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl (1965)
• Dino, Desi and Billy, I'm a Fool (1965)
• Silkie, You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (1965)
• Hugues Aufray, À l'Olympia (1965); Au Casino de Paris (1965)
• The Brothers Four, The Honey Wind Blows (1965)
• Four Seasons, Sing Big Hits of Bacharach, David & Dylan (1965)
• Chad & Jeremy, I Don't Want to Lose You, Baby (1965)
• Gerry Mulligan, If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em (1965)
• The Chipmunks, Chipmunks à Go-Go (1965)
• Hullabaloo Singers, The Hullabaloo Show (1965)
• The Lettermen, And I Love Her (1965)
• David Rose, The Velvet Beat (1965)
• Saxons, Saxons (Love Minus Zero) (1966)
• Duane Eddy, Duane Does Dylan (1966)
• The Beau Brummels, Beau Brummels (1966)
• Noel Harrison, Noel Harrison (1966)
• Billy Lee Riley, Funk Harmonica (1966)
• Stevie Wonder, Down to Earth (1967)
• Kenny Rankin, Mind Dusters (1967)
• Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Changin' Times (1968)
• Johnny Rivers, Johnny Rivers Rocks the Folk (1968)
• William Shatner, The Transformed Man (1968)
• Johnny Harris, Love Is Blue (1969)
• The Brothers & Sisters of Los Angeles, Dylan's Gospel (1969)
• Marmalade, There's a Lot to Talk About (1969)
• Jonathan King, Bubblerock Is Here to Stay (1971)
• Melanie, Born to Be (1969); Four Sides of Melanie (1972)
• The Tribes, Bangladesh (1972)
• Mike Batt Orchestra, Portrait of Bob Dylan (1972)
• John Denver, Beginnings with the Mitchell Trio (1974)
• The King's Singers, Tempus Fugit (1978)
• Julie Felix, Blowin' in the Wind (1982)
• Gene Clark, Firebyrd (1984); Flying High (1998)
• The Beat Street Band, Psychedelic Songs of the '60s (1989)
• Crowded House, I Feel Possessed (1989); Unplugged in the Byrdhouse (1995)
• The Cliffs of Doneen, The Dog Went East and God Went West (1991)
• Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, 1964–1969, Plus (1996)
• Phil Carmen, Bob Dylan's Dream (1996)
• Roger McGuinn, Live from Mars (1996)
• Abbey Lincoln, We Used to Dance (1997)
• The Daytrippers, Daytrippers (1997)
• Two Approaching Riders, One More Cup of Coffee (1997)
• Alison Ate, Cake (1998)
• Disraeli Years, Disraeli Years (1998)
• Raphael Cruz, A Mano (1999)
• The Mamas and the Papas, Before They Were the Mamas and the Papas (1999)
• Various Artists (performed by David West), Pickin' on Dylan (1999)
• Various Artists (performed by Chris Hillman), The Folkscene Collection, Volume II (2000)
• Gerry Murphy, Gerry Murphy Sings Bob Dylan (2002)
• Various Artists (performed by Fourth Street Sisters), Blowin' in the Wind: A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan (2003)

A rightly celebrated and enduring artistic statement that suggests an otherworldliness beckoning from just beyond the veil of reality, "Mr. Tambourine Man" is one of Dylan's most profound monumental lyric poems. His quest for transcendence through a seductive, almost messianic, Pied Piper–like sprite promising escape finally delivers both the poet and listener to a place "far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow."

Is this the only Bob Dylan song that begins with the chorus? At any rate, Dylan immediately begins invoking this mythic fairy from the get-go by asking him/it to "play a song for me" and promises to come following him in the "jingle jangle morning." It does appear to be dawn. After all, "evening's empire has returned to sand" and our singer, despite his amazed weariness, has no place to go except wherever the Tambourine Man might lead him. Over four verses, Dylan explains his plight through densely embroidered imagery laced with refracting rhymes, both enjoying the dance with the agony, ecstasy, and the muse while at the same desperately trying to escape. Or is he enacting in song the longing he felt from his adherents, becoming, in effect, the very tambourine man who repels and excites him?

In the first verse, the writer stares at the blank page, amazed at his weariness but unable or unwilling to sleep, invoking the muse. By verse two, he claims he's "ready to go anywhere" the Tambourine Man might lead if only he would cast his "dancing spell my way" but, by the third verse, he suspects that he has become a "ragged clown" left behind—fruitlessly chasing a slippery cipher of artistic and/or spiritual deliverance cast by the Tambourine Man's "vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme." In the song's last verse, the singer makes a final appeal, beckoning his muse to provide an inspirational experience beyond "all memory and fate" so he can "forget about today until tomorrow."

With its references to taking trips through smoke rings, swirling ships, and the like, "Mr. Tambourine Man" was attacked early and often for being a "drug song," which, naturally, angered Dylan. Less hysterical reaction more insightfully evaluated the song as an invocation to the singer-songwriter's muse for inspiration and the freedom that it brings. "Drugs never played a part in that song," Dylan later remarked in the Biograph liner notes; "'disappearing in the smoke rings in my mind,' that's not drugs, drugs were never that big a thing with me."

Perhaps so, but with its exultant visions and drive for transcendence, "Mr. Tambourine Man" seems to reflect a psychedelic experience -- an impulse underlined by the Byrds' euphoric version, which first popularized the song.

Academics have pointed to all kinds of source material for Dylan's inspiration. Dylan biographer Robert Shelton alone cites theories suggesting everything from black gospel music's "joyful noise" and the tambourine held by any Salvation Army troupe worth its salt to W. B. Yeats's epic poem "Byzantium."

Along with Frederico Fellini's 1954 film La Strada (his paean to a traveling circus starring the mighty Anthony Quinn), Dylan has cited session guitarist and bassist Bruce Langhorne (who showed up at a recording session with a gigantic tambourine) as a direct inspiration for the primary image of "Mr. Tambourine Man."

Dylan has also mentioned that the song was written upon leaving New Orleans in mid-February 1964 after experiencing Mardi Gras festivities to the fullest. But writer Al Aronowitz claims the song was penned during an all-night typing session at his house in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. Most probably, it was a work in progress over the course of the first half of 1964.

With its bright, expansive melody, "Mr. Tambourine Man" stands among Dylan's most iridescent and meditative compositions. His haunted delivery helps keep the desired transcendence always just out of reach, and his riveting performance is burnished with melancholy and a mesmerizing harmonica solo that conjures a solitary internal reverie.

As if drawn by the song's promise of inspiration and renewal, Dylan has consistently performed "Mr. Tambourine Man" in concert since its debut in May 1964 at a concert in London. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival he used the song to make a statement when he returned to play acoustic versions of it and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" after being booed for unveiling his electrified rock 'n' roll persona. Far from being a concession to those who wished to see him remain some sort of folkier bard, Dylan seems to have chosen "Tambourine Man" and "Baby Blue" that night as pronouncements of artistic purpose -- that the Greenwich Village folk renaissance was over and that he was going to follow his muse dancing "neath the diamond sky" in the face of the audience's Bronx cheers. It's seldom been static—note the ghostly, harmonica-heavy acoustic renderings of 1966, the up-tempo 1974 outings with the Band, and the 1978 big-band versions replete with a flute accompaniment that made things downright happy. Over the years "Tambourine Man" has kept improving, never sounding better than it did in Dylan's bittersweet mid-1990s staccato-style renditions, stealing many a Never Ending Tour acoustic set. In 1965 Dylan sang to Mr. Tambourine Man as if he were an impatient, apprentice bodhisattva. By the early twenty-first century, his wry, shambolic delivery suggested he was on to the old trickster's game but was still captivated by the allure of the "dancing spell."

In his description of Dylan's May 15, 1966, version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" from Leicester, England, Greil Marcus touched upon some of the song's magic in his book Invisible Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997):

In Leicester Dylan began "Mr. Tambourine Man," and it would take him nine perfect minutes to find an ending in the song he could accept. As he sings, his words are clipped, his diction almost effete, as if each word can and must be presented as if it means exactly what it says. But very quickly this odd speech becomes its own kind of rhythm, and paradoxically it releases the burden Dylan has seemingly placed on each word, and each word along with every other, and the song becomes a dream of peace of mind. You cease to hear the words. For nine minutes what you hear are two long harmonica solos, each pressing well past two minutes—solos that sway, back and forth, back and forth, a cradle rocking in their rhythm, until without warning the sound rises up like a water spout, hundreds of feet in the air, the cradle now rocking at its top, then down again, safe in the arms of the melody.

A version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" from that exact period and featuring Dylan's harmonica solo is captured in Eat the Document (1972), Dylan's interesting mess of a cinematic pastiche. Judging from this, Marcus knows of what he writes: this may stand as the greatest-ever moment of Dylan making music on film.

A final note: Hunter S. Thompson dedicated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Dylan for writing "Mr. Tambourine Man."

MORE "Keys To The Rain":
"Blowin' in the Wind"
"Like a Rolling Stone"
"Maggie's Farm"