Mr. Tambourine Man

Commentary

By 1965 Dylan had written many great songs: Blowing in the Wind, Hard Rain, Times They Are A’Chang’, and many others. Mr. Tambourine Man, arguably, eclipses them all. It’s one for the ages. Dylan knew he had done something special and unrepeatable when he wrote it. From an interview with Sing-Out magazine:

There was one thing I tried to do which wasn’t a good idea for me: I tried to write another Mr. Tambourine Man. It’s the only song I tried to write “another one.” But after enough going at it, it just began bothering me, so I dropped it. I don’t do that anymore.

Even Bob Dylan couldn’t write another Tambourine Man.

Allen Ginsberg said Dylan wrote the song after hanging out at the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans in 1964. He said Dylan was fascinated with the whole scene and it inspired him to write the song. Shelton also thinks that the Mardi Gras inspired the song.

The lyrics are spectacular, way beyond even the best pop songs. It’s not really necessary to try and explain what makes them special, it’s just obvious. Someone once said that in order to understand poetry, you have to have a little bit of a poet inside yourself. Anyone that has this ingredient in his soul doesn’t need the beauty of this song explained. There’s a reason it’s included in many college literature textbooks.

Dylan had used similarly surrealistic language before, Chimes of Freedom and Hard Rain being prime examples. Mr. Tambourine Man, however, is decidedly different. In many Dylan songs of this nature there is an overtone of foreboding. In contrast, the lyrics of this one are dreamy and mystical, exuding a feeling of release and escape. The only similar song I can think of is Lay Down Your Weary Tune, a wonderful song that never made it on an official album (it can be found on the Biograph collection and Live at Carnegie Hall).

The French poet Rimbaud said:

I say you have to be a visionary, make yourself a visionary. A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons and preserves their quintessence’s.

Mr. Tambourine Man seems like it  was written from that type of poet.

John Hinchey thinks that the song is “obviously” based on Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. An interesting theory, but far from obvious. There are some definite similarities. Both lyrics clearly state the need for escape from the humdrum life. In Ode to a Nightingale the vehicle is the nightingale’s song, whereas in Mr. Tambourine Man it’s the music. However, Nightingale is a much darker and pessimistic lyric, and the language in the two songs is not similar.

Dylan used the image of the nightingale in Jokerman, Changing of the Guards, and in the unreleased version of Visions of Johanna.

“I do know what some of my songs are about,” Dylan jokingly told an interviewer from Playboy magazine in 1966. “Some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.” That’s about as conclusive as well get as to what this song means. The lyrics, for all there insightful imagery and precise language, are especially vague. In general terms, the song is clearly about release for the earthly everyday world into a more elevated and heavenly state:

Then take me disappearin’ 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.

Beyond this general idea, however, the lyrics are certainly subject to interpretation.

One of the more common suggestions is that the song is about drugs, that Mr. Tambourine Man is the narrator’s drug dealer. Several lines suggest this interpretation, such as the line mentioned above: “take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind”, and also the entire second verse which begins with “take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship”. The general theme of the song, the longing for escape from the everyday and the elevation into a higher plane also suggests this notion. Of course, the song was written in the mid-sixties, almost at the height of the drug-craze. Dylan has always scoffed at this interpretation. In the notes for Biograph Dylan is quoted: “Drugs never played a part in that song.”

It seems to me that the drug interpretation is much too simple-minded for a song of such sweeping power and beauty. Other more high-minded (or maybe less high-minded haha) have suggested that the song is about God or the writer’s muse, and seem much more on the mark to me, especially the later.

In the 30s, the Singing Cowboy Gene Autry scored a big hit with the song (I’ve Got Spurs) That Jingle Jangle Jingle, which might account for the “in the jingle-jangle morning I’ll come following you” line. The phrase “jingle jangle” is also included in the popular folk song The Oul’ Triangle, written by old Dylan favorite Brendan Behan.

Behan was an Irish playwright and folksinger who drank himself to death at an early age. Dylan mentions Behan in the liner notes of The Times They Are A-Changin’. His brother was the poet Dominic Behan, whom Dylan mentions in the film Don’t Look Back. In the film Dylan, talking among a bunch of people at a party in his hotel room, says that he’s not interested in meeting “anyone like that”, after someone suggests that he meet Dominic. The Clancy Brothers, a popular Irish folk group in the sixties and a Dylan favorite, did a cover version of The Old (or Auld) Triangle, and Dylan did his own cover that can be heard on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11.

The music and the structure of the song are decidedly different. John Gibbens points out that few Dylan songs start with a chorus. Wilfred Muellers in his detailed musicologist study, A Darker Shade of Pale, notes that Mr. Tambourine Man, although written in the scale of D Major, actually behaves as if it were written in was written in Lydian G Major. Lydian is a musical mode that was developed in the early Christian church. The use of this mode gives the song its dreamy, mystical quality.

The sixties folk-rock group The Byrds had a huge hit with the song. The Byrds guitar player/vocalist Roger McGuinn sparked a run on 12-string guitars with the “jingle-jangling” lead guitar part. Interestingly, The Byrds seem to have based their version on the early draft of the song that Dylan recorded at the Another Side sessions. They sing “Ain’t no place I’m goin’ to” instead of the “is no place I’m going to” that Dylan sings on Bringing It All Back Home.


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 followin’ you.

Though I know that evenin’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 followin’ you.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ 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 wanderin’.
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 followin’ you.

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun,
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’.
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ 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
Seein’ 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 followin’ you.

Then take me disappearin’ 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 followin’ you.

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