The Byrds’ version of Mr. Tambourine Man was the first release by the group and the song quickly became a number one single in the United States and England. Recorded in January 1965, before the release of Dylan's own version, the Byrd’s song arrived in record stores in April. The song brought the folk rock sound into mainstream American consciousness. Though folk music had been successfully electrified before in the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, it had not been transformed as effectively into rock music, despite the fact that Alan Price’s pulsating Vox Continental organ on Rising Sun prefigured the work of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek on the same instrument. House of the Rising Sun had been a tremendous success both in the UK and in the U.S., reaching the top of their respective charts in July 1964 and September 1964. Indeed, House of the Rising Sun was the first English non-Beatle number one song in America since the beginning of the “British Invasion”. However, according the Richie Unterberger (Turn Turn Turn, p. 133) the term “folk rock” was first coined by the American press to describe the Byrd’s sound in June 1965. Instead of being perceived as an adaptation, by Summer 1965 musicians and their audiences were beginning to perceive of folk rock as a new genre.
[There has recently developed an argument that the single Laugh Laugh performed by the San Franciscan group, Beau Brummels, and released in December 1964, was the first folk rock recording. It is not within the scope of this project to delve deeply into folk rock, but I would like to record my opposition to this point of view. Though the Beau Brummels were the first successful new American artists to record popular music after the British Invasion, I believe Laugh Laugh succeeded in reaching the Top 20 on the radio because it closely resembled the Beat sound of the Mersybeat groups, like the Beatles, from across the pond. That is, the musical form of Laugh Laugh was Beat, not folk rock. The Beau Brummels did not attempt in 1964, as the Byrds did in 1965, to translate folk music into a rock idiom.]
The Byrd’s version of Mr. Tambourine Man truncates Dylan’s song from five and a half minutes to less than half that length, at two and a half minutes. Only the third and fourth verses are sung; the rest of the recording being taken up with guitar instrumentals featuring Jim McGuinn’s electric twelve string Rickenbacker and three part harmony choruses shared with Gene Clark and David Crosby. (Twelve string electric guitar was still a novel sound at the release of Mr. Tambourine Man. Though the song wasn’t the first in pop to use it—an electric Rickenbacker twelve string can be heard in the Beatles’ song Hard Day’s Night, played by George Harrison—its predominance in the hands of McGuinn identified him forever with the beginnings of “jangle pop”.) Also, as a rock accent, the electric bass is turned way up, providing an effective counterpoint. According to Roger (Jim) McGuinn, the Byrds were attempting to marry the beat, energy and harmonies of the Beatles with the lyrical sophistication of Bob Dylan. Much of their audience evidently believed that the Byrds succeeded.
It took the Byrds’ electric guitar version of Mr. Tambourine Man to introduce Dylan to the possibility of using a rock format for his compositions. The Byrds’ version was true to the spirit of the song (taking off on the “jingle jangle morning” of its chorus) but radically altered the mood to something like church bells ringing, a fresh way of hearing, something that communicated the supercharged senses of altered consciousness while bearing words that fluttered beautifully in the mind but without alighting on specific meaning. In this way, Mr. Tambourine Man presaged psychedelic music. The much more quickly felt effect of the Byrd’s Mr. Tambourine Man, however, was in the development of folk rock. Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone reached the penultimate position on the charts in Summer 1965. Simon & Garfunkel reworked a folk song in September 1965, The Sound of Silence, which had been ignored previously, and hit the top of the pop charts by the end of the year. Major folk rock hits that were also released in 1965 included I Got You Babe (Sonny & Cher, July 1965), Do You Believe in Magic? (Lovin’ Spoonful, August 1965), California Dreamin’ (Mamas and Papas, September 1965), and Eve of Destruction (Barry McGuire, September 1965). In its beginnings, folk rock was a uniquely American form.