It is one of the signature songs of the 1960s, the moment when the “voice of a generation” (an epithet Bob Dylan always loathed) broke free of the strictures of folky protest to find himself in surrealistic poetry. Druggie anthem or search for the muse — it has been interpreted as both — “Mr Tambourine Man”’s most important legacy is that it threw open the possibilities of what pop, and specifically pop lyrics, could be. That it was covered almost immediately by The Byrds — in a rockier version as influential as Dylan’s acoustic original — only redoubles its impact.
Dylanologists date the initial writing to February 1964. The 22-year-old had been up all night at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In that in-between time at the crack of dawn, he first caught those “vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme” and, he later declared, “the sound of what I wanted to say”. Too much can be read into his imagery yet it’s a fair bet that Dylan’s “trip upon a magic swirling ship” is a reference to the French symbolist poet Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” and the idea that inspiration can come via a “systematic derangement of the senses”.
More prosaically, the Mr Tambourine Man himself is probably just a bloke with a large percussion instrument. Dylan remembers Bruce Langhorne, whose electric guitar accompanies the singer on his definitive take, carrying a tambourine “as big as a wagon wheel” around Greenwich Village. Thus he named the Pied Piper-ish figure that the protagonist pursues in the “jingle-jangle morning”.
The song was premiered at a Royal Festival Hall gig in London in May 1964. Dylan also played it at the Newport Folk Festival, and you can find a lovely film of that performance on YouTube. In June of 1964, he recorded the song with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. This version wasn’t up to much but is now anthologised on the seventh of the Bootleg Series. Having therefore missed inclusion on 1964’s Another Side of . . . album, “Mr Tambourine Man” would eventually open the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home, the 1965 release that launched Dylan’s “electric” period and triggered an arms race of creativity with The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
The Byrds, meanwhile, also signed to Columbia, were encouraged to cover “Mr Tambourine Man” as their debut single. The group, comprising Jim McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, were only convinced their version would fly when Dylan, hearing them play it live in the studio, exclaimed, “Wow, man, you can dance to that!” Their rendition, however, nearly didn’t get off the ground, as the producer, Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, wasn’t happy with the twisted martial beat of their demo. Thinking the band’s musical abilities weren’t yet up to scratch, he brought in the peerless LA session musicians known later as the Wrecking Crew, and in particular Hal Blaine on drums. On January 25, 1965 (10 days after Dylan had cut his album version), McGuinn nailed his vocal and played the introduction on his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. The heady sound kicked off the folk-rock boom. With abridged lyrics, and harmonies from McGuinn, Crosby and Gene Clark, these three minutes translated into a number one on both sides of the pond.
As for his view of the song’s meaning, McGuinn, who had changed his first name to Roger as a devotee of Subud, the Indonesian-derived spiritual sect, would describe it as “a prayer of submission”. “I was singing to God,” he professed, “and I was saying to Him, ‘Hey, God, take me for a trip and I’ll follow you anywhere.’” If we can’t vouch for any religious conversions, the flock of bands following his sonic lead include Big Star, The Smiths, REM, The Stone Roses and Teenage Fanclub.
Other performers have covered “Mr Tambourine Man”, notoriously William Shatner (aka Star Trek’s Captain Kirk) among them. To say their takes are inessential is an understatement. The most radical refashioning of Dylan’s lyrics is by the classical composer John Corigliano, who set the words for soprano and orchestra in 2003 without having heard the original music.
Yet the most telling thing about the song’s greatness is that Dylan maintains it’s the only one of his songs he’s tried to “do another of” in the same vein. He failed, which shows how uniquely successful he was in the first place.
Photograph: Express Newspapers/Getty Images