When it comes to the greatest hits of all times, Bob Dylan tracks pop up in the lists frequently. This is no surprise at all, considering his expansive repertoire and the fact that Dylan is considered one of the best songwriters of the 60s. Out of Dylan’s many hits, ”Mr. Tambourine Man” is a song in its own league – even among hits like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” – influencing a whole generation of musicians.
On the surface “Mr. Tambourine Man” doesn’t seem like anything special. Classified as acoustic folk, the melody is simple and cheerful, reminiscent of a breezy summer morning. It is the brilliant lyricism of this track that takes it beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary. The track was recorded and released in 1965, and featured as the opener of the acoustic side of the album ‘Bringing it all Back Home.’ Notably, this dream-like song was inspired by a Mardi Gras celebration that Dylan attended in New Orleans. The celebration must have appealed to the young visionary in Dylan, who immediately converted that celebratory mood to the song.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was an immediate commercial success. It was the first time when Dylan’s folk music was able to climb to the top of pop music charts. The song reached #1 on the UK Singles, Billboard Hot 100, and the US Cash Box Top 100. Even on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “Mr. Tambourine Man” occupies a special place. It is one of the few songs that are featured twice on the list – Dylan’s original version followed by the cover version done by The Byrds. Likewise, both versions of “Mr. Tambourine Man” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, attesting to the legendary status of the track.
While The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was also critically acclaimed, arguably Dylan’s version eclipsed the cover and remained a song fondly passed from one generation to the next.
Listen to “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan
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Bob Dylan “Mr. Tambourine Man” Lyrics Review and the Song Meaning
“Mr. Tambourine Man” is a bit on the lengthy side but it brings out such beautiful imagery that listeners could lose themselves in it. In fact, the song seems to go on and on, and that simply adds to the magic of this track.
“Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy, and there is no place I’m going to”
Interestingly, the song opens with the chorus, and Dylan’s “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man” is probably one of the most well-known song openings of all time. The chorus of the song introduces us to the narrator of the song, whose thoughts are voiced by Dylan. We hear of a man that seems to be searching for an alternative to sleep and encounters a tambourine man that is jangling along. The narrative of the song brings to mind a fairytale; of a man asking this mysterious tambourine man to play a tune and then following him to the ends of the earth.
“Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand”
Dylan’s lyrical genius is certainly nothing to scoff at as this beautifully written verse conveys the weariness of a person that is exhausted to their very soul. The listener is treated to a slew of lines that sound more like poetry. From empires crumbling into the sand and ancient empty streets, Dylan paints an image in our minds. Yet despite the man’s bone weariness, he is unable to sleep blissfully. And so the man remains on his feet, blindly staring at the night when he encounters the tambourine man.
These lines speak of unspeakable loss, it is perhaps why the narrator is unable to close his eyes. He is ready for some sort of respite and finds it in the tambourine man. So he asks the tambourine man to relieve him of his burdens by requesting a song. The song at this point seems like an appeal to escape reality. This interpretation becomes entirely believable considering that Dylan was inspired by Mardi Gras – a festival featuring a costumed procession that offers people a small break from their dreary existence.
“I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancin’ spell my way”
A careful look at the song reveals that it goes through different phases. The earlier verse expressed the narrator’s wish to escape his monotonous existence. This verse describes a transformation. The man casts aside the mundane and invites the magic in by asking the tambourine man to play a song. This is a nod to the soothing and hypnotizing qualities of music, and how it serves as healing to even the weariest of souls.
He begins to accept his weakened senses and ailing body and seeks relief through music. Again what shines through is the desire for release from existence. The difference here is that instead of wishing for escape, the narrator just wants to be a part of the parade. The influence of Mardi Gras is felt in this verse as well, where the masses become one during the celebrations, traversing the streets as a single entity.
“Though you might hear laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escaping on the run”
The image of the tambourine man that Dylan created in our head is similar to that of a Pied Piper – except that he simply carries a tambourine and is followed by a laughing crowd. We become aware that the man is not alone in wanting to go behind the tambourine man, but he would simply become part of a joyful crowd following the tambourine man. It is interesting that Dylan used the lines “escaping on the run” to describe those who followed the tambourine man. It enforces the belief that the man was trying to get away. In contrast, the tambourine man is shadowed by a clown that attempts to catch up to the narrator.
The clown could be a personification of fear, or even the reality that the singer is trying to escape, which is likened to a shadow that he cannot escape from.
Watch Bob Dylan Perform “Mr. Tambourine Man” Live in 1964
“Let me forget about today until tomorrow”
The verse is preceded by a harmonica solo played by Dylan and the verse itself consists of a few of the most poetic and visionary lyrics that was had ever penned. The narrator expresses his wish to disappear, invoking images of smoky rings, ruins, frozen leaves, haunted trees, and windy beaches to which he wants to escape. Except, the narrator is aware that this might all be a pipe dream, as these images are only conjured up in his mind.
What he truly wishes to do is to forget the unpleasant memories and begin again. And that is why the narrator attempts to escape reality, preferring the delusions brought about by the tambourine man. And so Dylan voices a desperate plea to the tambourine man, to just take him away so that he can at least for a moment walk away from the worries of tomorrow.
Of course, the song has multiple interpretations. Some critics believed that the tambourine man was a metaphor for drugs, and the song was about a man chasing the high. Another interesting take was that the tambourine man alluded to religion and the path to salvation. Yet another interpretation was that the tambourine man was the personification of death and the song was merely a way that the narrator experienced death.
The lyrics are also deciphered as being how a man narrates the loss of their childhood dreams and the longing to retrieve them. Finally, some critics also view the tambourine man to be Dylan’s muse or inspiration, and this song expresses his creative process. Each of these interpretations has its own merit – except the influence of drugs, which was refuted by Dylan himself.
No matter which way we might wish to understand these lyrics, it conveys the desire for change and escape. These feelings are perhaps what made the song popular. The sense of fantasy coupled with poetic lines that were hard to fit into a box certainly made “Mr. Tambourine Man” one of the most popular tunes that