Meaning of Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan & Story

It is no coincidence that this famous composition by Bob Dylan was included twice in the list of the greatest songs of all time according to Rolling Stone. Let’s start with the fact that Mr. Tambourine Man was the first very popular folk-rock song, so it can be argued that it played a key role in the formation and development of the genre. In addition, she is remembered as the first hit of The Byrds. It is also interesting because it has given rise to numerous disputes about the meaning of its text.

The story of the creation of the song Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan started composing Mr. Tambourine Man in February 1964 while touring the US with friends. It happened when they were returning from the Mardi Gras carnival, which is held in New Orleans. They say that friends sent parcels with marijuana to the post offices on their way in advance so that they would not have to search for “grass” on the road. In March, he returned to New York and completed the song.

Premiere Tambourine Man took place on May 17 at a concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall. In June, while working on Another Side of Bob Dylan, he demoed the song with Jack Elliott, but did not include it on the album. He eventually re-recorded it and included it on Bringing It All Back Home, released in March 1965 on Columbia Records.

Subsequently, it was included in several collections of the best compositions of Bob Dylan and became an indispensable element of his concert performances.

But even more popular was the cover version of Mr. Tambourine Man performed by The Byrds, which became the title track of the band’s debut album. It was released as a single, topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and launched the folk rock boom.

Since then it has been sung by many famous artists including Stevie Wonder, Bob Sinclair, Judy Collins, The Four Seasons and The Barbarians.

The meaning of the song Mr. Tambourine Man

The text, which is difficult to read, replete with strange images and incomprehensible phrases, led many to think that Mr. Tambourine Man is about drugs, and the man with the tambourine is a drug dealer. Considering that Dylan was actively using marijuana at that time, this version seems very plausible. However, the content of the song is more reminiscent of hallucinations that occur under the influence of LSD, and Bob allegedly was not yet familiar with the “acid” at that time.

The author, of course, denied such an interpretation:

Drugs never had an effect on this song… “disappearing in the smoke rings of my mind” is not drugs. Drugs have never been that important to me. I could take them or leave them – I never sat down.

According to Dylan, “Mr. with the tambourine” is the musician Bruce Langhorne:

Bruce played with me on many early records. At one session, Tom Wilson asked him to play the tambourine. And he had this giant tambourine. He was really big. It was the size of a cartwheel. He was playing and the image of him playing just stuck in my head.


True, Langhorne himself learned that he became a source of inspiration for Dylan only from the synopsis for the Biograph album. Bob also said that he wrote under the influence of Federico Fellini’s film La Strada.

Some critics see in the song the musician’s appeal to his muse, the Pied Piper from an old German fairy tale, or even Jesus Christ.

According to Johnny Rogan, biographer of The Byrds, Roger McGuinn filled the song with a religious meaning. Here’s what the band’s frontman told him:

At the subtext level “Mr. Tambourine Man”, whatever Dylan meant, I turned it into a prayer… I sang to God and said that God is a man with a tambourine and told him: “Hey God, take me on a journey and I will follow behind you”.

Song Achievements

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, Mr. Tambourine Man has been named to Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time twice. The Byrds’ version is at number 79, while the original is at number 106. Both versions are also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Mojo readers voted it the fourth best Bob Dylan song ever.

Mr. Tambourine Man has been translated into Turkish, Portuguese, Romanian and other languages.

Lyrics Tambourine Man

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 to 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.

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 to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.

Thought 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.

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.

Lyrics of the song Mr. Tambourine Man Bob Dylan Alternative

Hey! Mr. tambourine, play me a song
I don’t feel like sleeping and have nowhere to go
Hey! Mr. tambourine, play me a song
I’ll follow you in the morning chime

Though I know yesterday’s empire has turned to dust
slipped away from me
And without looking back left me here where I stand, still awake
My weariness amazes me I’m branded to stand on my own two feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street is too deserted for dreams

Take me on a journey in your magical dizzying ship
My senses are exposed, I can’t feel my hands
My toes are numb and just waiting for the heels
Will hit the road
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready to disappear
In my own parade, cast a dance spell on me
I promise to follow him

Though you could hear laughter as you swirled and swayed madly against the sun
It’s nobody’s business, it’s just a hasty escape
And besides heaven, there are no other obstacles on the way
And if you hear the dim echoes of the drums of rhyme
With your tambourine, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay attention to him, he’s only chasing a shadow
which you see

Let me escape in the smoke rings of my mind
Through the misty ruins of time, beyond the frozen leaves,
Frightened trees where ghosts roam, to the windy beach
Away from the winding paths through which crazy sadness roams
Yes, to dance under a diamond sky, waving with one hand,
Looming against the sea, in the center of the sandy amphitheater,
And let all memories and fate sink deep under the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Song quote

Everything seems to take place in the early morning, following the night during which the narrator did not sleep. Still unable to sleep, though amazed at his weariness, he is available and open to the song of the tambourine man and says he will follow him. Over four verses full of intimate poetry, he talks at length about the situation, and the meaning of his words is often heavily embellished with imagery, although the desire to be liberated by the song of a man with a tambourine remains clear.

William Ruhlmann, Allmusic

Add a comment