“Mr. Tambourine Man” (2:29)
Written by Bob Dylan
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Columbia Records, June 21, 1965. Previously released as a single on April 12, 1965.
After counting down the first 21 of the Byrds’ Top 25 Songs, we now get to the Final Four, the band’s crème de la crème.
In 1964, the unsophisticated “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” rock ‘n’ roll of the Beatles and the other groups of the “British Invasion” was perceived as the music of high school teeny-boppers, while folk music was the choice of college high brows. However, observing the phenomenal success of the Beatles that year, three young folk musicians – Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby – abandoned “pass the hat” folk music and joined together to form a rock ‘n’ roll band they dubbed the Byrds.* But they couldn’t shed their folk roots completely. The band’s manager had ties to Bob Dylan’s management and procured an unreleased Dylan tune called, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” McGuinn, after already having some experience as an arranger, shortened the song, changed the time signature from 2/4 folk to danceable 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll, and also created the unforgettable Bach-like intro. Because it was the fledgling band’s first recording, Columbia producer, Terry Melcher (son of singer and actress, Doris Day), only trusted McGuinn enough to play his jingly-jangly 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar** in the studio. The rest of the instrumentation was filled out by session musicians.*** Regarding his lead vocal, McGuinn later remarked that he was aiming for a cross between Dylan and John Lennon. Crosby’s soaring high-harmony backup vocals became one of the band’s trademarks.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” took AM radio audiences by storm as it climbed to #1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. Folk-rock was born and influenced many artists and bands. Both the Beatles and Dylan took note and changed their styles accordingly. The Beatles began writing songs with adult lyrics and Dylan electrified. “Intelligent” rock ‘n’ roll replaced folk music as the currency of the burgeoning counter-culture.
Some may question why I rated “Mr. Tambourine Man” at only #4 in our countdown when it’s one of the band’s two signature tunes. I had originally rated the song even lower, however, after further consideration, more reasonable thoughts prevailed. I’ve heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” so often over the years that it’s worn on me a bit, but it definitely deserves its due as a musical game-changer.
It’s my pleasure to present song #4 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”****
*The name “Byrds” was chosen in imitation of the misspelled “Beatles” and to pragmatically position forthcoming singles and albums in close alphabetical proximation to those of the Fab Four and the popular Beach Boys in the record store racks.
**McGuinn had noticed George Harrison playing the 12-string Rickenbacker in the film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” and acquired one for himself. In 1964, there weren’t any instruction books on how to be a lead guitarist in a rock ‘n’ roll band, so with his previous experience as a folk-music banjo player, McGuinn didn’t know any better and played the electric Rick in a very unique, “banjo-ish” way, using a regular pick and two finger picks. The result? McGuinn created a rolling, chiming sound with his Rick that was wonderfully distinctive.
***An as-yet-unknown Glen Campbell had been considered to play the lead guitar part.
****Who was the enigmatic Mr. Tambourine Man referred to in this song? McGuinn later said that he sang the song as a prayer to God. McGuinn would accept Jesus Christ as his Savior twelve years later in 1977. An internet search revealed that “Mr. Tambourine Man” was inspired by Bruce Langhorne, a folk musician who accompanied Dylan on many of his early recordings (see here).