Mr Tambourine Man: early thoughts and the wonderful 1964 festival version

By Tony Attwood

This is the first review of Tambourine Man on this site.  For reasons that I now cannot properly recall I decided to do a second review a few years later, which you can find here.  

This article has been updated a couple of times, the most recent being July 2018 with the addition of a couple of very early live versions of the song.


According to some articles Bob Dylan hated the phrase “the voice of a generation” which applied to him, and given the complexity of his writing one can understand why.  There is no Dylan voice, there are as many Dylan voices as there are Dylan songs.

So I began to wonder if Bob has been the voices of the generation; all those multiple things  that those of us who are maybe not quite as old as Bob but getting on, think we were, and maybe occasionally still are.

Hearing the version of Tambourine Man below it is one voice that we knew at the time, a voice of gentleness, of kindness, of affection.

In a review in, of all places, the Financial Times (the UK’s version of the Wall Street Journal) published in July 2016,  commented that the Tambourine Man’s “most important legacy is that it threw open the possibilities of what pop, and specifically pop lyrics, could be.”   They also quote Dylan himself as commenting that this was “the sound of what I wanted to say”.

They find a link to Rimbaud too, specifically “Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” and the idea that inspiration can come via a “systematic derangement of the senses”.”

Now of course it is one of the most famous of Dylan songs; we have heard it so many hundreds of time it is hard to remember what it was like to experience it when it suddenly appeared on record.

In a sense listening to “Bringing it all back home” today on a CD re-issue of the album makes the appearance of the song even more shocking and amazing than it was at the time of release, for now Tambourine Man continues immediately on from the end of what was side 1 of the LP.  No lifting the record up and turning it over.  No natural pause.

So we move from the rock blues craziness of side one onto the gentle acoustic rhythm guitar with equally gentle single arpeggio playing electric lead guitar as Dylan weaves his melodies on side two.

Interestingly, perhaps almost amusingly, Dylan’s official site records the lyrics of the chorus as starting…

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

Amusing, because of course there never is an exclamation mark in the singing – Dylan runs the words together, as he gives us that feeling of the mind bouncing along gently with the thoughts of the day, when he knows he should be sleeping.

Here’s the recording from 1964 at  the Newport Folk Festival

The lyrics themselves give a clue, if it were needed, as to where we are…

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

My head is worn out, I have thought too much, I have fought too many battles, tried to hard to reform the world, I can’t do any more…   The exclamation mark, if it were reflected in the style of singing, would detract from the style and the meaning and take us somewhere completely different.

As for the music, the recording above gives us the song in its pure, original format.  By the time it got to the LP the accompanying lead guitar is added – and that is no bad thing for it is so gentle and dream like in itself… and rarely for a Dylan recording there are no slips, no lost notes, it is as near perfect a rendition as you find on any  Dylan recording.

What we actually have on the LP, and what made it so shocking on first hearing, is that after seven tracks, mostly mocking and humorous, all based on the 12 bar format with its three major chords, we have another song that again has nothing but the three major chords which every novice guitarist learns.

But the contrast is overwhelming.  The laughter and joking has gone, as have the love affairs of Love Minus Zero, and She Belongs to me.  This is the magic of dreamland, or as some commentators would put it, the magic of a drug induced haze.

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

Maybe it is a drug related trip, but I hope that wasn’t the intention, for this is such a gentle ballad, the music is so fine and refined, and drug taking is anything but that in what it does to the mind and the body.  But then, that’s just my view, having lived much of my life with Dylan’s music.

But in a sense Dylan is mocking himself, his own inability to create the perfect rhyme, the perfect song, the perfect reflection of the world beyond normal vision, just as singing protest songs failed to change the world.

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

Yes we are all chasing shadows, and Dylan himself fears he was chasing shadows with Blowing in the Wind, and all the protest songs of his early days.   This is in fact the final complete antithesis of Hard Rain.  The world is not about to end, the dream continues.  The recording above reflects that perfectly in my opinion, despite the problems with the recording at times.

The notion that this is about a drug-induced vision is heightened in some commentators’ eyes by the “smoke rings of my mind” verse, and yet anyone who has tried to create artistically will tell you that there are times when the creation never comes out as one wants – the perfect picture, the perfect dance, the perfect song – they are none of them possible.  We always see the world through a haze.  Even Bob.

But the smoke rings verse gives us something else.  The music is as gentle and easy as ever, and yet the language is far from that.  Consider…

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

Everyone involved in creativity has been there, as much as they have been dancing beneath the diamond sky with one had waving free.

It is a stunning composition, made all the more remarkable by its contrast with side one of the album.  Has an artist ever created two such contrasting pieces as “115th Dream” and “Tambourine Man” and given them such a proximity?

Of course they are two sides of the album, and two sides of the same coin.  Both based around the same three chords, both played with guitars, both reflecting on the strange places that a dream-like vision can take you.   The lunacy of 115th Dream, the pleading, gentle, extended open hand trying to grasp and describe the world in Tambourine Man.

It was a theme that Dylan would return to in the next album but one with another masterpiece.  One  that began, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.”   The Tambourine Man, it seems, lost the fight.  The foggy ruins of time, took one step backwards, and found itself moved into the misty landscape that continues forever.

There’s also a recording from Sheffield in 1966

But that was yet to come.

What is on the site

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6 Responses to Mr Tambourine Man: early thoughts and the wonderful 1964 festival version

  1. Olga says:

    This is the best analysis of the song I have found anywhere. I have an alternate explanation for the stanza that begins ” down the foggy ruins of time…”.

    I believe he is remembering painful experiences from his past, perhaps an abusive childhood. The imagery of of haunted and frightened trees with their remaining sorrow is something every adult survivor experiences. He is seeking to forget that sorrow which can make you confused and sorrowful and for the moment become the carefree and happy child he should have been by following the sound of the tambourine.

    Like every good artwork, meanings may be as diverse as the listeners…and as they are drawn in each listener becomes a co-creator with the artist to imbue the lyrics with personal meaning.

  2. mel kinder says:

    I first heard “Tambourine Man” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 . It was not finished and rather short. When I heard Dylan at a concert at Long Beach Jordan High School in December ’64, he did not play it. (perhaps it was not fully formed.) It was to become a “master piece” Critics have pointed out the repetition of the refrain; it bores them. The POET is bored! But look where he is going! He asks for a song; he asks to be taken for a trip because he is lost and depressed. He seeks inspiration as this ‘ragged clown’
    tries to follow Tambourine Man. Then he says his own “skipping reels of rhyme” are based upon the “shadows” that he is chasing. “Don’t pay him any mind” He cannot even see this god, this muse!
    Of course the last verse blows us away! He is ‘Prospero” driving is “staff”, his “art” his memories and fate, deep beneath waves. Yes, Dylan knows the “Tempest”.

  3. Frankee says:

    i listened to it for the first time recently and i was convinced it was about a homeless person’s experience of living on the street. My friend said no it’s just a happy song with emotional happy content. She said yesterday she’d listened again and could see how i could interpret it like that. That’s the thing with poetry, it’s open to subjective interpretation.

  4. Larry Hartley says:

    I think it is about “music” visiting his mind, about that creativeness and inspiration that causes you to write a song. He is asking “where do these words and tunes come from? How do they get into my head and noone else’s?” He is bewildered by where all these threads come from and how all these pictures that appear in his head come together to make a song. I think the Tambourine Man is his way of personifying music.

  5. Hello Tony, yes the classic Bob Dylan song. Come and join us inside his Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/428/Mr-Tambourine-Man and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan.

  6. daldai says:

    Nice review – again – but I think you might be missing the importance of the first verse. It’s the early morning after a party where he’s been the (not yet ragged) clown, everyone hanging on every word from the voice of a generation. He wants to be free from the prison of responsibility he’s inadvertently built around himself but to do so he has to abandon the album’s prior assertion not to follow leaders. He needs Mr. Tambourine Man to take control and lead him away from all this insanity.

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