Mr Tambourine Man: the origins, the music, the meaning, the death knell

By Tony Attwood

He is affection and future, the strength and love which we, erect in rage and boredom, see pass by in the sky of storms and the flags of ecstasy.

He is love, perfect and reinvented measure, miraculous, unforeseen reason, and eternity: machine loved for its qualities of fate. We have all known the terror of his concession and ours: delight in our health, power of our faculties, selfish affection and passion for him,—he who loves us because his life is infinity…  (Rimbaud: Genie)

I have listened to Mr Tambourine Man too many times, and at the same time tried to see what Dylan saw in Rimbaud’s poetry that made him want to divert his creative attention to the lad.  And now, all these years later I think, yes, ok.  OK.  But no more.  Just OK.

The swaying motion on the bank of the river falls,
The chasm at the sternpost,
The swiftness of the hand-rail,
The huge passing of the current
Conduct by unimaginable lights
(Rimbaud: Motion)

Unimaginable lights sounds like a forgotten verse from Tambourine Man and these two selections from Rimbaud are what I would guess Dylan had read in the run up to writing Tambourine Man.

Dylan was, by all reports, doing what many creative people do, at the time, experiencing the new in order to stimulate the creativity.  Enough people have written about Dylan’s world at this time without me trying to summarise it, but it seems Tambourine Man comes out of this experimentation and his fascination with this French teenager who wrote his own brand of poetry, and then aged 20, stopped, dedicating himself instead to being a libertine.

The Tambourine Man himself is the wanderer, based we are told on Bruce Langhorne (who played the lead guitar on the song), who actually did have a large tambourine, and it is based on walking the streets at night.  As Dylan is quoted once as saying, “You get a little spacey when you’ve been up all night.”  Eventually he used the line in “It takes a lot to laugh”, and much more successfully than the images are used in Tambourine Man, in my opinion.

I’m not trying to criticise this notion of staying up all night to get inspiration, for indeed I’ve regularly used novel experiences myself to stimulate my own modest creativity, in particular going alone to jive clubs that I don’t know, where indeed I don’t know anyone, in towns I don’t know, knowing it will force me to ask for dances, pushing myself in other people’s secure world stepping out from safety, being exposed as the outsider.  But these jive clubs are not like Mardi Gras which is where I gather Dylan was.  Maybe one gets a different notion there.

Not (as I always say at these moments) that I am trying to suggest I am an artist of merit, but rather that I have written enough and met and talked with enough other minor artists to know that is what a lot of us creative types do.  We look for novel experiences to stimulate the imagination.

But… but for me it doesn’t have any of the depth of Baby Blue, which ended the second side of Bringing it all back home.  I can still listen to Baby Blue and hear it with a freshness and interest, but not Tambourine Man.  Somehow it remains stuck in the time when it was written, whereas Baby Blue reaches out far beyond that moment into the present day.

So why?

Is it that I don’t like the Pied Piper?  Quite possibly so, because the whole concept is one of losing control.  I don’t want to hand over to the Tambourine Man and let him take me, but I often want to say, “If that’s how you feel, it’s over” (as in Baby Blue).

So I want the novelty of experience, but not by handing myself on to another and saying “take me”.  Not at all.

But whatever I say, let us not forget that “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” were recorded at the same time as Tambourine Man.  It would be ludicrous in the extreme not to recognise such an astonishing output, and what does it matter if so many, many years on I don’t want to listen to the Tambourine Man’s call any more? Not a jot.

As for the music, I can do no better than take what Professor Wilfred Mellers noted: that the song is in the key of D major, but sounds as if it is in the Lydian mode. (The modes were the precursers of our major and minor keys – you can hear the Lydian by going to a piano and starting on G, moving upwards, playing just the white notes).

And forgive me while I pause on Wilfred Mellers.  He was Professor of Music at the University of York in 1970 and was the first senior academic to show a serious interest in what I was trying to do as a young musician/writer/dancer.  It was his belief when no one else wanted to know that kept me going in my search for a place in the arts.

Professor Mellers wrote an astonishing array of books including the classic Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music which gives a lot of insights into some of the music Dylan heard early on, Twilight of the Gods: the Beatles in Retrospect (1973) (the first major academic book on the Beatles music), and A Darker Shade of Pale: a Backdrop to Bob Dylan (1984).

But back to the main point…

I don’t have any dispute with the standard interpretation that Dylan hasn’t slept all night and follows the Tambourine Man who may or may not be real.  The Tambourine Man is inspiration, we follow him because he can take us somewhere good.

I guess my question is, “does it still say something to us now?”  Which is also my issue with Rimbaud – does he say anything now?  The answer to the latter is no, not much, which is why he remains such a minor poet.

Tambourine Man in fact, for me has become a historic marker.  Whereas so many of the songs that I have gone back to and reconsidered still have an enormous driving power and force for me, irrespective of whether I have played the songs regularly over the years or no.  But for me the Tambourine Man’s days have gone, perhaps mostly because the chorus is just not very interesting.

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

The image of the first verse is powerful, the empty streets alone, after a night time awake, was powerful indeed in 1965, but really only for its novelty and its appositeness to the time.  Maybe because I was just 18 when I heard it, maybe because as I left home and started out as a student I was free to stay up all night, without anyone giving me a frown.   And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming is indeed a powerful imagination of the streets one walked through on the way back from a party.  But only the first couple of times.

And of course because of my utter love of dancing even then cast your dancing spell my way was and remains a key line for me – but really that is my point.  I got the lines because I lived the lines.  And the really great music of Dylan does so much more than that.

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day,  for example, is unbelievably powerful and moving to me, and I’ve never been there.  That is true poetic power.  Mostly Dylan can do it, but here…

Now looking back there are some lines in Tambourine Man that are indeed fascinating anew.   It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing is perplexing – a literal shadow of a man or woman passing by or a metaphorical shadow?  But as fast as I think of that we are back to the chorus, and quite simply I don’t want to hear the chorus again.

Maybe that is the problem – the chorus isn’t strong enough to be sung so many times.  All the interesting bits – even if they are faded now after so many hearings – are in the verses.

And when I say that I find “smoke rings of my mind” a hackneyed phrase, you are probably going to close never to return.  I’m sorry, but hackneyed is what it seems now, and I fear it felt that way all those years ago.  It is just a set of words, illuminating nothing much.  So very flower-power.

Same with the foggy ruins of time, and the twisted reach of crazy sorrow… what is it saying?  Nothing much – or at least nothing much any more.

And here I think I see why I don’t choose to play this song these days.  Whereas I have never ever finished exploring Visions of Johanna because the images and the inter-relationship between the three characters in the scene are endlessly intriguing, I really don’t want to forget about today until tomorrow.

That’s just sleep, or a drug induced hallucination.  I want life.  I want more of life.  I didn’t want oblivion then, and I certainly don’t want it now that I am in the latter portion of my life.  Just compare that ending of Tambourine Man (Let me forget about today until tomorrow) with the ending of Johanna

The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

I can contemplate one forever, the other now seems too trivial to consider.


What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. Love the blog – I’m a 23 year-old newcomer to Dylan, exploring his songs and toying with the meanings much in the same way as you do in these great posts.

    Appreciate your view on Tambourine Man – but for me, it’s so much more than just a hallucination, or a drug-trip relived.

    “Though I know the evening’s empires
    have vanished from my hand
    left me blindly here to stand
    but still not sleepy”

    This to me speaks of a crumbling fantasy: a momentary drug-delusion perhaps, but also the disillusion of the very basic, fundamental fantasies which form the bedrock of our lived experience. It’s those moments when the blinders are stripped from our eyes, and the towers we build, and use to navigate through the world are suddenly no more, leaving us alone, haunted and in despair. Dylan’s tone of voice throughout this – almost carefree, ‘high’ even – gives the song a very eery feel, I think.

    “im ready to go anywhere
    im ready for to fade
    into my own parade
    cast your dancing spell my way
    I promise to go under it”

    Again, these lyrics could refer to dropping acid or smoking pot, but also I feel, touch on those moments when life takes us away, when the rug is pulled from under our feet and the wheel taken from out of our hands. It’s tripping in the most basic sense of the word: those moments when life catches us by a stunning surprise, and we can do nothing but follow our instincts, even as they begin to appear alien to us. This could be falling love, but it could be the dreamy-eyed gaze of the wanderer in a new home, or the artist dancing, without a single inhibition to the tune of a muse. There’s so much in all of these lines to speak about – they say so much to me on every single level, and Dylan’s lyrics I think succeed in the many faces they wear and show at the very same time. ‘Ready for to fade into my own parade’ – there’s a, powerful and I think deeply political anti-egoism to this line which blows me away everytime I hear it. To recognise the sprawling parade of one’s own ego, and to fade from it willingly, into the spell of something stronger and infinitely more promising.

    “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”

    These lyrics are for me, the best lyrics I’ve ever listened to – I don’t really know what to say about them, they just say too much for me to even begin! The haunted trees of our memories, the howling sorrows left by the marching sweep of time, and for us all, despite everything, to somehow remain with one hand waving free – does anything encapsulate what is to be alive better than this?! Simply breathtaking!

  2. utterly breathtaking, your analysis is how all musicans and artists have felt listening to bob dylans work through the ages

  3. Not so much Rimbaud, but Shelley: Dylan, a dead frozen leaf, driven by the West Wind like a ghost from an enchanter fleeing, out to a beach of crazy sorrow, not glorifying seagull droppings, but escaping from an over-glorified society.

  4. TS Eliot, who sees himself in a moral Wasteland,
    nonetheless, is freightened by the sight of the Eternal Footman holding his coat. Dylan’s lyrical universe swirls with shadows, shades, spirits, and souls that manifest in the material world. If one finds not some happiness here on earth, there shall be release with the death of the body, a relief from earthly sorrow. Meanwhile, there’s a chance of meeting a kindred spirit or at least taking in the carnival on Desolation Row.

    ‘Your soul is as a moonlit landscape for/
    People with maskers delicate and dim/
    That play on lutes and dance, and have an air/
    Of being sad in their fantastic trim”
    (Paul Verlaine: Moonlight)

    The ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of their face:
    “The clouds are turning crimson, the leaves fall from the limbs and/
    The branches cast shadows over stone/
    Won’t you meet me in the moonlight alone?”/

    ….For whom does the bell toll, love?
    It tolls for you and me.”
    (Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

    Death awaits everyone and is not to be feared:
    “Therefore, send not to know/
    For whom the bell tolls/
    It tolls for thee”
    (John Donne)

    Therd be chimes of freedom flashing.

  5. Let us compare mythologies:
    First Shelley:
    “Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread/
    On the blue surface of thine airy surge/
    Like the bright hair uplifted from the wind/
    ….Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/
    Like withered leaves from the wind”
    (Ode To The West Wind)

    Now Dylan:

    “Down the foggy ruins if time, far past the frozen leaves/
    The haunted frightened trees out to the beach/
    From far the the twisted reach of crazy sorrow”
    (Tambourine Man)

    The spiritualistc poetry of Shelley is called upon by Dylan to soften Rimbaud’s harsh view of the modern citie life.

  6. “Autumn already. But why regret the everlasting sun /
    If we are sworn to search for divine brightness/
    Far from those who die as seasons turn/

    …..Our boat rises out of the hanging fog, turns towards poverty’s harbour/
    The monstrous city, its sky stained with fire and mud”
    (Arthur Rimbaud: Farewell)

    Dylan at least sees some light and warmth down on Desolation Row.

  7. Rimbaud gives Dylan artistic balance and enables him to present existence how it is, ie, with both a bright side and a dark side; Romanticism on its own is far too false a view….Dylan is not going to sing very many songs about that cute little doggy in the window.

  8. Dylan whistles as he walks quickly past TS Eliot’s
    (and Rimbaud’s) twisted imagery:

    “A twisted branch upon the beach/
    Eaten smooth and polished/
    As if the wind gave up/
    The secret of its skeleton/
    Stiff and white.”
    (TS Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night)

  9. “….I am sent back to the soil to seek some obligation/
    To wrap gnarled reality in my arms! A peasant!”
    (Arthur Rimbaud: Farewell)

  10. “Out to the windy beach/
    From from the twisted
    reach of crazy sorrow”
    (Dylan: Tambourine Man)

  11. Other typo corrections:
    2:14 “beach from crazy sorrow…”
    11:03 “out to the windy beach/Far from the twisted…”

  12. I wont try to relate this song to anything else.
    For me the song expresses love for music.
    It is also a manifesto of fate and destiny.
    A manifesto of destiny, hvis could also be about everything else than music.
    You have to follow your own track.
    Nobody or anything can change that fate.

  13. I hate to break this to yas..but tambourine a song that is about the tambourine man is a drug couldn’t flat out talk about those things on the radio..saw an interview awhile go back . And see how it all falls into place

  14. “Which is also my issue with Rimbaud – does he say anything now? The answer to the latter is no, not much, which is why he remains such a minor poet.”
    Arthur Rimbaud is a French poet, born October 20, 1854 in Charleville and died November 10, 1891 in Marseille. Although brief, the density of his poetic work makes Arthur Rimbaud one of the leading figures of French literature.

    Rimbaud was not a surrealist.
    Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s in France, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.

  15. Interesting analysis, Tony. I’m on the other side of the spectrum with this song. I identify with Dylan wanting to escape. I never interpreted the smoke rings of my mind in any psychedelic connotation. There’s not a ton to unfurl here in terms of ambiguity or message, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. And there’s some incredibly beautiful poetry in this song.

    I do want to forget about today until tomorrow sometimes and when I do, man oh man, does this song nail exactly how I feel about doing so. While experiencing life with all of its joys and sorrows is what it’s all about, sometimes a little refuge from reality isn’t a bad thing.

    What are your thoughts on the Rolling Thunder Revue version? That just elevates this piece into the stratosphere for me.

  16. The piano’s white keys starting on G is Mixolydian, but that isn’t what this song is. It’s firmly in the Ionian mode, the white keys starting on C, better known as the major key. It’s in D major with two sharps in the key signature.

  17. There is another version to this song.
    I am not sure whether or not it is reliable or true. Anyway, I will reproduce it here:
    Mr. Jackson do Pandeiro (pandeiro = tambourine) was a very famous musician in Brazil. You can see him here, playing the tambourine:

  18. I agree totally – Dylan speaks to all generation – but in my case, he was so different we thought his lyrics were profound and pitied our parents who didn’t understand ..

  19. Rebecca Lane:
    Oh I absolutely remember that feeling. Now as an old man with children and grandchildren, I hope I wasn’t too awful to my parents about it all, and I am so grateful to my daughters that they’ve never suggested I don’t have a clue what’s going on in their world.

  20. Thanks Bob I’m glad someone else picked up the error in the lydian scale in Cassius article.
    The scale he describes I think is the mixolydian…
    Or the dominant 7 Blues scale…
    Which dylan very rarely ventured into…
    All of Bob Dylan’s harmonica playing as well was in the diatonic scale..
    Not cross harp…
    Apart from that a brilliant article..

  21. It is great to read an alternative perspective on Dylan’s written words. I don’t think ‘forget about today until tomorrow’ means that day is lost. I think it is a beautiful phrase (and wonder if it was his own). To me, the phrase means to experience the day for itself, and reflect on all its significance after it has ended.

  22. Although this is not a favorite Dylan song of mine (for many of the reasons Atwood notes) and I don’t find the poetry (whether you consider Rimbaud, Blake and or Shelley the primary inspiration) so interesting as a read (on paper). But, this is a MAGICAL piece of art, even though it is not profound and might as well be the kind of song a parent sings to a child at bedtime to lull them to sleep. The whole thing works perfectly like a well-executed act of magic, the structure, the chorus – so catchy that he begins the song with it – the thinness of the D chord on the guitar, Dylan’s inimitable voice and phrasing, and the surreal lyrics — which when not looked at too closely do enchant.

    Try writing a song with this level of magic and enchantment. You will not pull it off. Who could? You might ask why bother, but I think Dylan might answer something like, “just because … I happened to be there at the time that song wanted to be born.”

  23. Without wanting to contradict the author’s well argued piece… To me, there’s so much more to this song.

    Yes, there’s definitely a degree to which this song is trivial. Or perhaps circumstantial – about a specific time and place, about escapism. I agree that certain lines are hackneyed!

    But taken as a whole, this song speaks to me of a deep openness; an openness to experience, an openness to life, an openness to God?

    Certainly not trivial. And certainly something that reaches into the present day…

    I’m also a young Dylan fan – quite new to his music. It’s interesting how there seems to be a bit of a generational divide here.

    Would be interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on my take on this wonderful and (I think) mysterious song.

  24. He looked like seventeen gas-light stove pipes
    Come together with jingle-jangle bells all over
    (Lord Buckley: Scrooge)

    And by degrees your heart is tangled
    Bliss grows apace, and then it’s course is jangled
    (Bayard Taylor: Prelude At The Theatre)

  25. It was always thought that Mr.Tambourine Man was a song about drugs and the 1960s counter culture.The Tambourine Man is the pusher and the man requesting “play a song for me” is the addict seeking his fix.Due to the prevailing censorship of such issues in 60s America such themes had to be hidden in the lyrics.Add to this fact the Byrds covered the song in 4/4 time to an electric dance beat and then went on to record a number of tracks for the film Easy Rider and we can see how the drug myth about the song became reality.

    However Bob Dylan has categorically denied the song has anything to do with drugs.If we accept this as true we need to find another meaning for the song.I think the inspiration for the song may come from the Renaissance art of Venice.It must be remembered that JFK in 1963 gives a speech welcoming Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa to MOMA in New York.The weekend colour supplements were full of images of Renaissance art as they endeavoured to show Leonardo’s place in the history of art.

    I think the clue to unraveling the mystery lies in the positivity of the final verse and in particular the affirming line :
    “Yes,to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.”
    This for me perfectly references Giovanni Bellini’s 1479 masterpiece “The
    Resurrection of Christ”.Bellini has represented Christ rising from the temporal zone of the sepulchre to the eternal.At first glance one might mistake this for a standard crucifixion scene as the height of the Christ figure is similar to ones of him on the cross.However he has one arm waving free,there is no blood,no suffering,Golgotha itself has rabbits on it.The image is one of total hope as a dawn is breaking that will release us from time itself.The sun will never need to set again as eternal truth will hold dominion over all.The evening’s empire of the darkness of the crucifixion has indeed returned to sand.

    In this context the song is about someone on a journey towards spiritual enlightenment which enables the searcher to ultimately forget about today and look forward to a brighter tomorrow.

  26. Good day to everybody,

    Many elements before mentioned have their validity at least partially.
    To this I’d like to add some consideration for the presumed moment in time of the song’s coming into being.
    If we may believe that Tony Attwood’s proposed chronology on this site is correct, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was conceived more or less at the same time as ‘Chimes of freedom’. This was during the three weeks stationwagon-travel which Dylan undertook with some friends in February 1964, driving from the East- to the Westcoast of the US.

    During the three months before that, Dylan’s creativity had been completely blocked because of three events: the JFK-assasination on 11/22/63 (1), his reaction to falling into the trap of the Tom Paine Award on 12/14/63 (2) and the necessity of promoting the release of his third lp ‘The times they are a-changin” on 08/01/1964 without feeling the urge BECAUSE of the two preceding events (3).

    During these three months he wrote just ONE song, a pretty average one too, called ‘Guess I’m doning fine’, which is hardly more than an utterance of a young man being busy to regain grip on his life.
    We also should consider that in February 1964 he was more or less unbound in love, as during this roadtrip there were no ladies involved, which is why, traveling with just a few (male) friends it may well have been one of the very last uncomplicated periods in his life before coming to worldfame.

    If we take all this into account, than it would seem to me that ‘Mr. Tambourine man’, even more so than ‘Chimes of freedom’, is the first song really of an artist who has achieved self-liberation of the ties that his former persona had come to suffer from.
    In that view I would argue that the adressee in the song most probably stands for the artist’s male muse, that is: himself. It is a song of self-encouragment ‘to fade into my own parade’.

    All the best from Amsterdam

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