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Mr. Tambourine Man

by

The Byrds



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

Bob Dylan wrote this, and the song was originally released on his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home on March 22, 1965. It is the only song Dylan ever wrote that went to #1. (thanks, Joshua - Chico, CA)
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. They took some lyrics out and added a 12-string guitar lead.
The Byrds did the vocals and lead guitar on the recording, but session musicians were brought in to play the other instruments. The band was just starting out, and were not very good musicians yet. The session musicians who played on this song were the Los Angeles members of what came to be known as "The Wrecking Crew" when 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 this song were Jerry Cole, Larry Knechtel and Glen Campbell. They recorded the backing track at the same time they were working on The Beach Boys "Don't Worry Baby." The backing tracks are very similar for both songs.
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 tapedelay, 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 interview is available at Rock's Backpages.)
This song changed the face of Rock music. It launched the Byrds, convinced Dylan to "go electric;" and started the folk-rock movement.
This was inspired by a folk guitarist named Bruce Langhorne. As Dylan explained: "Bruce was playing with me on a bunch of early records. On 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 was not about drugs: "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." (thanks, Mike - Mountlake Terrace, WA, for above 3)
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."
The production style was based on The Beach Boys' song "Don't Worry Baby."
Roger McGuinn: "I was shooting for a vocal that was very calculated between John Lennon and Bob Dylan. I was trying to cut some middle ground between those two voices." (thanks, fredric - NYC, NY, for above 2)
This was the first influential Folk-Rock song. All of the characteristics of that genré are present, including chorus harmonies, a rock rhythm section and lots of thought-provoking lyrics.
This was discussed in the 1995 movie, Dangerous Minds. In the movie, they talked about the underlying drug references this song might entail... Example: "Mr. Tambourine Man"=Drug Dealer; "Play a song for me"=give me a joint. The basis for this theory was that music was heavily censored at that time, so musicians would share their feelings about drugs and unallowed subject material through coded songs. (thanks, Kristy - La Porte City, IA)
Although the Byrds didn't write this or play most of the instruments, they would later write the song "Rock N' Roll Star," which made fun of The Monkees for not writing their own songs and not playing their own instruments. (thanks, Conrad - Los Angeles, CA)
In the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers (Mike Myers) attempts to play the CD of this album on a record player. (thanks, Ethan - Ridgely, MD)
While many interpreted the song as a thinly veiled drugs record, McGuinn had other ideas. Having joined the Eastern cult religion Subud just 10 days prior to entering the studio, he saw the song as "a prayer of submission." McGuinn told The Byrds' biographer, Johnny Rogan, in 1997: "Underneath the lyrics to 'Mr Tambourine Man,' regardless of what Dylan meant, I was turning it into a prayer…. I was singing to God and I was saying that God was the Tambourine Man and I was saying to him, 'Hey God, take me for a trip and I'll follow you.'"
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Comments (62):

On December 12th 1965 the Byrds performed "Mr. Tambourine Man " on the CBS-TV program 'The Ed Sullivan Show'...
Seven months earlier on May 9th it entered Billboard's Top 100 chart; and on June 20th peaked at #1 (for 1 week) and spent 13 weeks on the Top 100...
"I Can't Help Myself" by the Four Tops preceded at #1 and then succeeded it at #1...
And on July 22nd it reached #1 (for 2 weeks) on the United Kingdom's Singles chart.
- Barry, Sauquoit, NY
According to "Highway 61 Revisited" by Colin Irwin when Dylan heard the Byrds version of his song it inspired him to try and have a hit record on the top of the charts. This led to "Like a Rolling Stone". Dylan was actually trying to match the Byrds version of his own record with a hit himself! McGuinn was the only Byrd who was professional enough to record and sing on the single, since he had been the lead guitarist and arranger for Bobby Darin prior to the Byrds.
- coy, Palestine, TX
1. "Mr. Tambourine Man" has only one definition >> LSD.

2. This song was released by Columbia shortly after the original of it was released by its author, Bob Dylan, on Dylan's Bringin It All Back Home album. As an acoustic folk song of immense poetic quality, it didn't generate much money. Columbia gave it another go by bringing in many musicians and creating a new sounding genre (Folk Rock). The resulting Byrds version did have a pleasant sound. Almost nobody knew what the words meant (or cared), and Columbia didn't care either, as the song went to # 1 on the charts, and made them money. Lost in all this, was 3 of the 4 superb poetic verses of the Dylan original + his terrific harmonica break. Mr. Tambourine Man (by Dylan) remains as one of the great songs of all time, regardless of the fact that most music listeners don't even know it existed, and they're not helped by web sites like this , that list the Byrds cheap, commercial imitation.
- Bert, Florida
Interesting how this website doesn't even list the REAL Mr. Tambourine Man song (by Bob Dylan), but does have the cheap commercial imitation by the Byrds. In 1965, Columbia accomplished two things when they released both versions of this song. With the Dylan (original poem/song), they released one of the greatest songs of all time, and one of the greatest poems ever written. With the Byrds version they mads a lot of money, and got themselves a # 1 song on the charts. Anyone who hasn't heard the Dylan version, needs to Google it up and listen to it (carefully). And listen to it 3 or 4 or 5 times so as to get the full impact of the poetry (which is a bit surrealistic). You may also note that the Dylan original has ALL the 4 poetic verses of the song, while the Byrds copy has only 1 of the song's 4 verses, and none of the terrific Dylan harmonica break. The Byrds "version" is therefore about 20% at best of the Dylan one. It is a pleasant sounding song though, and is notable for breaking the ice on the whole genre of Folk Rock. It's regrettable though that it takes the watering done of a masterful work of art, to get it to sell and gain notoriety from its business success, rather than its genius.
Second thing I wanted to say is that the term "Mr. Tambourine Man" means one thing only >> LSD.
- Bert, Florida
Dylan's Version was better! Infact Its Dylan's Best!
- Kunal Somaiya, Mumbai, India
Larry Knechtel, a member of Bread and famous for playing piano on Bridge Over Troubled Water, played bass guitar on the Byrds' version of Mr Tambourine Man, according to Wikipedia.
- Ken, Newtownards, United Kingdom
I believe this song is about loss. Loss of a loved one, perhaps the death of a person or something the writer believed in. If you have ever suffered a great loss in your life, you will remember the feeling of powerlessness, wanting help and in the end just release from your pain. Just re-listen to the lyrics and I think many people might agree: In the first verse, he so longs for release from his pain that he asks this whimsical figure of Mr Tambourine man to "play a song for me" and "I'll come following you".In the second verse, he talks about evening's empire having vanished into sand meaning the past is gone. He follows this by talking about his weariness and aloneness - I have no one to meet. Again, anyone who has suffered loss will know the weariness that comes from pain and the loneliness that follows the departure of the wellwishers. In versae 5 he asks Mr T to "take me on a trip" and "my senses have been stripped" - again, he is saying he has nothing left and wishes someone would release him from this mortal pain.Towards the end he describes himself as "that ragged clown behind" again re-stating his feeling of powerlessness. All he wants is to do is ease his pain by followingMr T who seems like a figure from childhood - a time when he was happy. Finally the song moves to describing that release from pain that he wants - "far from the reach
- Lance, Zhengzhou, China
I think Dylan played it with a capo up on the third fret. Anyone know about that.
- Jack, Bradenton, FL
Why is it that when an artist uses a metaphor that someone doesn't understand, the song is immediately about drugs? The first verse is about heroin? Cut me a break!
- Jim, Morgantown, WV
There are some factual errors to be pointed out in these postings. First, "Don't Worry Baby" was released on the Beach Boys' album, SHUT DOWN, VOL. 2, released in March, 1964. This is before the Beatles recorded "A Hard Day's Night" which was Roger (Jim) McGuinn's inspiration to pursue the 12 string electric guitar. Further, in 1965, almost all albums were mixed for release in mono. All singles were mono until 1968. However, all Byrds albums were also released in stereo. On "Mr. Tambourine Man" McGuinn's 12 string guitar is mixed hard right, the bass isto the left, vocals, and percussion are centered. It's primative stereo to be sure. Whether Terry Melcher supervised it or not isn't certain as stereo releases were often afterthoughts mandated by the record company. Melcher wasn't exactly a lowly toadie. He already had a hit w/ future Beach Boy, Bruce Johnston, "Hey Little Cobra" recorded as the Rip Chords. Columbia had little rock presence on the west coast. Producers like Bob Johnston who recorded Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel worked between New York and Nashville.
- Rob, Owings Mills, MD
I think the Dylan version is waaaay better than the Byrds'. I used to like the Byrds version a lot but when I heard the original, I felt like the Byrds might as well have re-told a story, but left out everything except one chapter near the beginning! I still like the feeling the Byrds version gives me, but it is a feeling I get more from the instruments than anything else.
As for what this song is about, I feel that it is about being "open to experience" and the "call to adventure." It could also be about artistic inspiration, but people who are artistic are usually already "open." Sometimes people try drugs because they are "open" as well, but if drugs are referred to in the song, I don't feel they are as important in the song as being "open" in the first place. I think the point of the song is the desire to experience something. Maybe that's different for everyone.
- Melissa, Windsor, Canada
Great comment PowerPopFan, It was George's influence that gave The Byrds their sound that would make them famous. George had a way with his Ricky that still sends chills down my spine.
- john, Grand Island, NY
Dylan was a great song writer - singer, not so much. His songs sound so much better when they are sung by other bands...odd I know but when I think of Mr. Tambourine Man - I think the Byrds. When I think of Knockin' on Heaven's door, I think Guns N Roses...does anyone else agree?
- Linc, Beaumont, TX
Let's give credit to George Harrison of the Beatles first. It was after listening to "A Hard Day's Night", is when Roger McGuinn got the idea of that jangle sound. Crucially, it was this guitar that Harrison played in the movie, A Hard Day's Night. Musicians both professional and aspiring, saw and heard the Rickenbacker twelve string and lusted after it. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds saw Harrison playing his Ricky in a darkened movie theatre, went out and bought one and soon made musical history.
- PowerPopFan, Bronx, NY
It is no wonder the Byrd's version went straight to the top.
No one else had McGuinn's completely different technique on his twelve string Rickenbacker, and he did it so well.
Fabulous song.
- oldpink, New Castle, IN
Dylan was inspired to "go electric" by the Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun," not this song.

(Oh yeah -- Dylan's version is better. :))
- Dan, Riverside, IL
Dylan said that drugs were never a big thing with him...Makes you wonder why he introduced the Fab Four to drugs then. Anyway about the song it's one that I get into when my mind has been expanded with (slight cough)goodies from my local pharmacy. Yeah thats right good old pharmacy.
- Joel, Columbia, SC
Roger Mc. Guinn in this song plays his 12 string Rickenbacker that creates the typical "jingle-jangle" sound. Frequently underestimated is the fact that british popmusic as well was influenced by this type of music. After listening to this song both John Lennon and George Harrisson immediately bought themselves 12 string Rickenbackers, that were used on the albums "A hard days night" and "Help". Also Pete Townsend (The Who) used the Rickenbacker guitar.
- Ron, Brasschaat, Belgium
this is just my honest opinion, but anyone who thinks the birds version of this song is better than the original bob dylan version has no respect for the poetry in this song, i dont think bob dylan was some kind of special messenger either, he is not trying to tell you anything, i could sit here all day and think of meanings to eatch and every lyric. bob dylan is quite a song writer though and it is a talent. all i know is i love to play his songs on my guitar and harmonica. this is just an opinion
- brandon, cadillac, ME
Does anyone know what the actual song is about? Like, what all the lyrics mean etc...?
- Blake, London, United Kingdom
The Dylan version of this song is one of the greatest pieces of poetry ever put to music. The Byrds, unfortunately, made it Beach Boy pop. And it's about Dylan's 1964 visit to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, not drugs. The images mesh perfectly with the parades, the street musicians and the floats that look like ships -- especially if you've just had a bottle of wine on Bourbon Street.
- Richard, Avon, IN
I like this verison better then Bob Dylan. I think The Byrds did a very good job turning this song to a Folk rock song
- Chad, Los Angeles, CA
The Byrds made the better version of this song. The Beatles are the band that deserves the credit for the Byrds going electric and incorporating folk with rock. The Byrds admit to this. The Beatles actually were recording folk rock before the Byrds went electric "I'm A Loser" and the jangle of "What You're Doing". The Byrds perfected it and popularized the jangle sound and folk rock. They were not the first though.
- Sean, Manchester, United Kingdom
Personally I like both versions but for different reasons and they are different from each other in delivery and intent. Unless you were there in 1965 to hear the Byrds version spill out of your radio for the first time, you haven't got a clue. Does it matter that the Byrds didn't write it? No... Whoever decided to cover this song, (probably McGuinn), knew what they were about. At that time, the opening peal of that twelve string defined electricity.

Dylan's version is all about the poetry. Someone above said the Byrds left out the first verse because it was too drugy... Seems to me they left out a lot of verses in order to create a commercially viable song and they succeeded like nobody's business. Hell they created a brand new genre. However, no one can take away the beauty of the words of the original, poetry pure and simple and frankly I don't giver a damn if it's about drugs or just being tired in club somewhere, its a revelation and it inspried a whole generation of singer song writers.

Finally if you think that Dylan can't sing, get hold of copy of the live stuff from England in 1965 - 1966. It was a bootleg for years but its available on CD now. Dylan's singing on that tour and on that record is on fire. Don't tell me that guy can't sing rock and roll and I know because I do...
- Bon, Boston, United States
It's rather humorous that Bob Dylan makes claims against a song that's obviouslt referenced directly to heroin. I mean, of course he couldn't outright say that due to publicity and media isses, but it would still be nice to hear him say it once honestly.
Why else do you think that the Byrds removed the entire first verse when they covered it? The song was too drug related for them to get as much airplay as they wanted out of it, so they changed it to work for them. Smart move by an up-and-coming band I must say.
- SurfDude, Fenwick, DE
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- nk, Novi, MI
Anybody else notice how Dylan's voice is so hoarse for a second coming out of his harmonica solo? It cracks me up. Shows you're basically hearing a live recording in the studio. Bobby was never one to overdub and re-record ad infinitum.
- Guy, Woodinville, WA
Roger McGuinn said at the Byron Bay Blues Festival that he copied the Beatles guitar sound at the time for this song. It seemed to have worked for him.
- Jon, Cairns, Australia
Couldn't sing? Take a look at Like A Rolling Stone then tell me he couldn't sing. Now take a look of another version of that song...like The Rolling Stones. Now try to tell me Dylan can't sing.
- Josh, Toronto
It has alway's amazed me that Dylan had so many great songs, but it took other poeple to make them a hit. I like some of his songs, but Dylan couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. This rendition by the Byrds is my favorite song for whatever reason. All along the Watchtower done by Jimi Hendrix is another song that makes chills run up my spine when it begins. Dylan was a genius when it came to songs, just couldn't sing.
- Paul, Laddonia, MO
haha thats a joke Mr. Tambourine man By the Byrds look dont get me wrong the birds were great at covering songs but they didnt have very many hits they wrote themselves and they had 3 borrowed from dylan.
- calvin, kyle, TX
A movie about the virtuoso metal guitarist jason becker will be coming out soon titled Mr. Tambourine Man. I dont know why they called it that though.
- Josh, Thornhill, Canada
This is a great song but the Beatles were already doing folk-rock in some of their songs of 1964 and Roger McQuinn has already admitted to that fact recently on Mojo magazine.
- anne, york , England
The Tambourine Man is the artist/musician who becomes the spiritual leader & voice of the 60s generation. The artist's intoxicating influence draws the crowd to open their minds to new perspectives, hence the "drug" metaphors. One of Dylan's greatest songs and a brilliant arrangement by Roger McGuinn, fusing folk and rock. Both Dylan's & The Byrds' versions are among the best of their genres.
- Jim, Tampa, FL
Better, same, but not worse than Dylans verse of the song.
Love the background music and the psychidelic sounds
- lander, antwerp, Belgium
I've heard different stories as to why Dylan went electric. Dave Van Ronk had done the folk version of "House of the Rising Sun" Dylan had heard it and incorporated it into his act. When he herard the Animals electric cover of the song he was so impressed he decided to go electric. This version of the story is told by Dave Van Ronk in the DVD " No Direction Home" covering Dylan's early years.
- Alan, Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada
Well, it said on the liner notes of the album that Bob Dylan 'flipped' when he heard this version of his song. That sort of surprised me, but okay.

If it indeed was about drugs, nobody I knew thought so. I think you'll find that musical celebrations of pharmeceuticals, even from those days, are far more obvious than this one.
- Mark, Lancaster, OH
Like both versions. Tsup Stef.
- Jon, Oakridge, OR
actually, this GREAT song was partly inspired by Bob Dylan's friend, Bruce Langhorn( he played guitar in the freewheelin' bob dylan sessions), who use to carry around a big turkish tambourine that he would occasionally play, Bob decribed it as being "big as a wagon wheel" and partly by the wild scenes in the New Orleans mardi gras.
:D
- pinkmonty, london, England
this song is EPIC!
- pinkmonty, london, England
Bob is talking to himself in this song. Mr. Tambourine man is Bob Dylan.
- Jon, Fort Collins, CO
Dylans version is way better
- Derek, Sarnia, Canada
Personally I like Dylan's version better, but his version and the one by The Byrds are different. I guess you really can't compare them. To me, this song seems to be about drugs, but it could be about music as someone else pointed out.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
Fyodor, I read that article, and it's pretty cool. Some of things are pretty funny!
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
Is it another coincidence that this song has a mention of diamonds and the sky just as The Beatles' "Lucy.." does, but not until two years later? It is the same with "Caroline, No" by The Beach Boys. "Caroline,No" and "Girl From The North Country" have the same them about a girl with long hair and the fetish the men have with this long hair. Dylan's song was released and written well before both of these other popular numbers.
- Brian, Sydney, Canada
The assumptions regarding Dylan's intentions are actually rather solid; Mr. Tambourine Man is a drug dealer...not so subtle symbol. This is especially true with respect to the full scope of Dylan's catalogue.
- Seth, Snohomish, WA
On one hand, I wouldn't necessarily believe anything Dylan says about his own work because he has admitted that he makes things up for the press. OTOH, those who cite the story of Dylan turning on The Beatles as an example of the significance of weed to Bobby should read this: http://www.bigmagic.com/pages/blackj/column2.html. To summarize, journalist Al Aronowitz claims that getting The Beatles stoned was entirely his own idea and doing and Dylan just happened to be there as well. Well actually, Dylan happened to be there because Aronowitz convinced him to come along and get to know The Beatles in the first place, according to Aronowitz. Now maybe it's BS, and of course Dylan had smoked pot and was a veteran at it already, but what Aronowitz says should be considered by anyone who would wing around the "Dylan turned on The Beatles" shtick just because that's what someone's told them.
- fyodor, Denver, CO
My dad is always telling stories about how he used to run around in the Welsh mountains singing this song..it conjures up an amzing image! I like to think this isn't about drugs, more about music.
- Cara, Perth, Australia
This is one of those songs that is "Why try to figure out the lyrics, just listen to it.
- Johnny, Los Angeles, CA
The Byrds were good and still are, but their style of music isn't as appreciated now as the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. I'm not sure why, I guess it's just that the Byrds don't seem as larger than life as they used to.
- Toby, Burlington, VA
Why is this titled under The Byrds. IT belongs under Dylan. Dylans version is ridiculously better.
- John Dylan, Blah, MS
hmm.. if this is about drugs, it probably isn't about weed, but something like acid/LSD (which Dylan experimented with in the 60's). I mean, even those that only have seen weed smoking in movies probably knows that it doesn't give you hallucinations, which Mr Tambourine Man seems to be about.
- Petter, Ã?ngelholm, Sweden
In one of Judy Collins' albums (either #3 or in the notes on Judy Sings Dylan, or possibly both), she writes about being unhappy one night when she and a bunch of other singers are all staying together in New York, and she goes down in the basement to find Dylan singing this softly, so as not to wake everyone up.
- anthea, boston, MA
Bob Dylan's performance of this song is 100x better than the Byrds. No question.
- Eric, Vista, CA
Personally, I say we all should end the assumptions that all these songs (Mr. Tambourine Man, Crimson and Clover, Puff the Magic Dragon, etc) are about weed.
- Johnny, Damascus, MD
This is #79 on Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest songs
- Ross, Independence, MO
This song is about drugs. In the 60's,they didn't just come out and really say 'I'm high' or 'lets all get together and smoke a splif'They were in code most of the time. And Dylan is a great example for the musicians of the 60's who wrote these sort of lyrics..though Dylan has said that none of his songs are about drugs. But after all...He did introduce Ringo, John, Paul and George to weed. lol.
"Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlling ship"
- riley, Toronto, Canada
This song is about a drug dealer in Grenich Village who use to signal his customers that the "goodies" were in by playing his Tamborine.
That's the basis for the song and the drug poetry that's in it.
- Lloyd, LA, CA
I love Bob Dylans music - his version is very, very good also. I choose not to choose which is better.
- Mike, Mountlake Terrace, Washington
By far one of the greatest songs of the sixties.
Very clean guitar changes from chords C F G C and F. A classic song that made The Byds famous!
- Mike, Mountlake Terrace, WA
'Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan' - according to Columbia's 60's slogan - cliche but true - esp in the case of Mr Tambourine Man!
- Bill, Newtownabbey, N Ireland, Ireland
Why do you say "by the Byrds?" Dylan not only wrote the song, he also recorded it. His is much better. If I had to choose a favorite song, it would be Dylan's "Tambourine Man."
- Bob, Mineral Wells, TX
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