Bob Dylan wrote and recorded the original version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," but it was made famous by The Byrds
, who took it to #1 in both the US and UK. The song hadn't been released when The Byrds learned it from a demo Dylan gave to their manager, Jim Dickson.
The two versions were released just a few weeks apart: Dylan's on March 22, 1965, on his Bringing It All Back Home
album, The Byrds' on April 12, 1965 as their first single. Dylan's version is just his vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and electric guitar countermelodies from session man Bruce Langhorne, who actually inspired the song (more on that later). The Byrds brought in the Wrecking Crew (various session musicians in Southern California) to add bass, piano and layers of guitar on top of Roger McGuinn's 12-string guitar and harmony vocals by Gene Clark and David Crosby. Their version set the standard for folk rock and even convinced Dylan to go electric.
Who or what is "Mr. Tambourine Man" about? On the surface, this tambourine man is an itinerant musician whose music has captured Dylan under his spell - he's ready to follow him anywhere. The song is widely considered to be drug-influenced, with lines like "Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship" and "take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind" indicating a pot or acid experience. Dylan is famously obtuse about explaining his songs, but in his 1985 Biograph compilation album, he broke the news that "Mr. Tambourine Man" is not about drugs, and was inspired by a folk musician named Bruce Langhorne.
Langhorne played on some of Dylan's early recording sessions, and one day, Dylan's producer, Tom Wilson, asked him to play tambourine. Dylan was struck by the sheer size of the instrument, describing it as "this gigantic tambourine... big as a wagon wheel." The vision of Langhorne playing it stuck in his mind and led him to the song.
The song may not be about drugs, but they were an influence during its creation. Dylan started writing the song on a cross-country road trip with friends that took them through New Orleans for Mardi Gras in February 1964. They smoked lots of pot on this journey and even mailed marijuana to post offices along the way to keep up their stash.
Dylan never had a #1 hit in America as an artist, but The Byrds' cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man" gave him one as a songwriter.
Dylan, never one to hew to the obvious, didn't put any tambourine on "Mr. Tambourine Man." The Byrds did, putting the instrument forward in the mix in their cover.
According to David Crosby and Roger McGuinn, the original Dylan "Mr. Tambourine Man" demo was really bad, particularly the poor harmony vocals provided by folk musician Ramblin' Jack Elliott. McGuinn, though, heard potential in the song and worked up the famous arrangement.
Dylan wasn't concerned about the quality of his demos and would commonly ask musicians to join him and then just throw them into a song. In Crosby's opinion, Ramblin' Jack Elliott probably didn't know the song and had no time to prepare before singing it. Dylan just invited him and started playing, leaving Elliot scrambling to keep up.
The aforementioned Ramblin' Jack Elliott's wife, Patty, was one of the first to hear Dylan perform the song. She was in a house with Sally Grossman, then-fiancé (and soon wife) of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, and Sara Lowndes, the "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands
" herself, who at the time Dylan was smitten with.
Dylan gave the song to The Byrds somewhat informally and without conferring with his manager, Albert Grossman, who was not happy about it. By the time Grossman got involved, though, the horse was already on the track and couldn't be stopped.
There have been various accounts of where Dylan actually wrote this song. Judy Collins remembered him finishing it at her house. Journalist Al Aronowitz, writing in the Sunday News (November 11, 1973), said Dylan wrote it at his Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, house in the aftermath of his breakup with Suze Rotolo, the woman Dylan had been madly in love with and who inspired many of his early love and heartbreak songs. Rotolo herself has claimed that Dylan wrote it while wandering the streets after one of their falling-outs.
All kinds of influences have been suggested for this song, from the Pied Piper of Hamelin fairy tale to the 1812 book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but most are assumptions and fantasies of listeners. One influence Dylan himself has acknowledged was a film titled La Strada. Made by Italian director Federico Fellini in 1954, the film is about a brutish strongman named Zampano and a young woman named Gelsomina, whom Zampono purchases from the woman's mother. Zampano plays tambourine (among other things) to earn money as a street performer.
The demo with Ramblin' Jack Elliott has been lost to time, but the first known recording of this song
is available. Dylan recorded it in 1964 at the home of his friend (and fellow folk singer) Eric von Schmidt in Sarasota, Florida.