The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

 

Bob Dylan wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was originally released on his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home on March 22, 1965. His version wasn’t released as a single, but when The Byrds released their cover later in 1965, it was a transatlantic hit, topping the charts in both the US and UK. It’s the only song Dylan ever wrote that went to #1 in America (in the UK, Manfred Mann’s cover of “Quinn The Eskimo” also went to #1).

Dylan wrote this on a road trip he took with some friends from New York to San Francisco. They smoked lots of marijuana along the way, replenishing their stash at post offices where they had mailed pot along the way.

The Byrds version is based on Bob Dylan’s demo of the song that he recorded during sessions for his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan (Dylan’s version was not yet released when The Byrds recorded it). It was The Byrds manager, Jim Dickson, who brought in the demo and asked them to record it – the group refused at first because they thought it didn’t have any hit potential. When The Byrds did record it, they took some lyrics out and added a 12-string guitar lead.

“Kudos to Roger McGuinn for taking on ‘Tambourine Man,’ which didn’t knock us out when we first heard it,” Byrds bass player Chris Hillman said in a Songfacts interview. “Bob Dylan had written it in a very countrified groove, a straight 2/4 time signature, and Roger takes the song home and works with it, puts it in 4/4 time, so you could dance to it. Bob heard us do it and said, ‘Man, you could dance to this!’ It really knocked him over and he loved it.”

Only three of the five members of the Byrds performed on this song: Roger McGuinn sang lead and played lead guitar; Gene Clark and David Crosby did the vocal harmonies.

Session musicians were brought in to play the other instruments since the band was just starting out and wasn’t deemed good enough yet by their management. The session musicians who played on this song were the Los Angeles members of what came to be known as “The Wrecking Crew” when drummer Hal Blaine used that term in his 1990 book. This group of about 50 players ended up on many hit songs of the era.

In addition to Blaine, studio pros who played on “Mr. Tambourine Man” were:

Bill Pitman – guitar
Jerry Cole – guitar
Larry Knechtel – bass
Leon Russell – piano

The Byrds who didn’t play on this one were bass player Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke.

This was The Byrds’ first single. In a 1975 interview with Let It Rock, Roger McGuinn explained how the unrefined sound of this song came about. Said McGuinn: “To get that sound, that hit sound, that ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ sound, we just ran it through the electronics which were available to us at that time, which were mainly compression devices and tape delay, tape-sustain. That’s how we got it, by equalizing it properly and aiming at a specific frequency.

For stereo-buffs out there who noticed that ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ in stereo isn’t really stereo, by the way, that’s because when Terry Melcher, the producer, first started mixing records he didn’t know how to mix stereo, and so he made all the singles up to ‘Turn Turn Turn’ mono. The label is misrepresentative. See, when Columbia Records signed us, they didn’t know what they had. So they gave production to someone low on the totem-pole-which was Terry Melcher who was Doris Day’s son who was getting a token-job-in-the-mailroom sort of thing. They gave him the Byrds and the Byrds were supposed to flunk the test.”

This song changed the face of rock music. It launched The Byrds, convinced Dylan to “go electric,” and started the folk-rock movement. David Crosby of The Byrds recalled the day Dylan heard them working on the song: “He came to hear us in the studio when we were building The Byrds. After the word got out that we gonna do ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and we were probably gonna be good, he came there and he heard us playing his song electric, and you could see the gears grinding in his head. It was plain as day. It was like watching a slow-motion lightning bolt.” (Quote from Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: The Early Years.)

This was inspired by a folk guitarist named Bruce Langhorne. As Dylan explained: “Bruce was playing with me on a bunch of early records. In one session, [producer] Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine. It was, like, really big. It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing and this vision of him playing just stuck in my mind.”

Dylan never told Langhorne about it (Bruce had to read about it in the Biograph album liner notes, like the rest of us). He wrote the song and recorded a version with Rambling Jack Elliot that got to the Byrds (known as the Jet Set at the time) before it was ever put on a record.

Dylan claims that despite popular belief, this song is not about drugs. In the Biograph liner notes, he wrote: “Drugs never played a part in that song… ‘disappearing through the smoke rings in my mind,’ that’s not drugs; drugs were never that big a thing with me. I could take ’em or leave ’em, never hung me up.” 

This was the first of many Bob Dylan songs recorded by The Byrds. Others include: “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” and “Chimes of Freedom.”

Song 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

Writer/s: Bob Dylan

Credit: Songfacts

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