Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me;
I'm not sleepy and there ain't 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 evening's empire
Has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand
I'm 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 for to fade
Into my own parade.
Cast your dancing spell my way--
I promise to go under it.
Though 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.
Bob Dylan began writing Mr. Tambourine Man in February 1964, but the song is not included on the album he was working on at time, Another Side. It was kept back from Another Side recording sessions to become the oldest song on Bringing It All Back Home. According to David Hadju in his book Positively 4th Street, Dylan began writing Mr. Tambourine Man after partying in New Orleans during Mardi Gras while on a cross-country road trip with several friends, and completed the lyric sometime between mid-March and late April after returning to New York. Mr. Tambourine Man was being written during the onslaught of the “British Invasion” with the Beatles dominating the top positions of the pop charts.
The bright, expansive melody of Mr. Tambourine Man has become famous in particular for its surrealistic imagery, influenced by 19th century French Symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud, possibly through the tutelage of contemporary American poet Allen Ginsberg. French Symbolist poetry is at the root of the 20th century modernist movement in poetry, and also provided a basis of expression for psychedelic lyrics. It is for this reason that I believe the psychedelic aesthetic really began to take shape first in Bob Dylan’s poetry rather than in the genre’s musical adventures. In general, musical ideas of psychedelia flowed from the new ability of pop music to alter consciousness by the unconventional use of words, which in turn encouraged unconventional instruments, structures, and techniques as their vehicle.
Mr. Tambourine Man suggests the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and his musical call for children to follow the sound of his magic pipe wherever he might lead. In Western European (German) tradition, this was off a cliff and into the sea. Dylan's lyric somewhat follows these traditional contours of the Pied Piper story, taking the singer to the sea shore, but the singer is not the Pied Piper; Dylan rather takes the voice of one of the children, supplying as a motive for his following that he feels there is nothing to lose.
The singer of Mr. Tambourine Man can't sleep, though it's already almost "jingle jangle" morning; his nerves are on edge, he can't trust himself enough to surrender himself to sleep; he can't feel confident he will awake safe tomorrow. He feels stuck, and seems eager for the invitation of music from a gypsy on the streets to raise him from his restless bed, for until the arrival of the Tambourine Man the streets had been dead in a town that no longer offers the singer anything of its past glory. I'm branded on my feet is a strange expression, seemingly meant to convey the singer’s inability to become motivated. Does the "brand" of the civilization he finds himself in condemn him to be unable to escape its grip, to run off and be something else?
The Tambourine Man's music ("a magic swirling ship" as if caught in a whirlpool, suggesting too the circularity of the tambourine) revives the singer from a state of numbness and enchants him into a dancing spell. The singer and the music of the Tambourine Man become one in the dance, sharing laughter and spinning, and as the tambourine is beat above the head so that the bangles catch the light of coming day with the rising of the sun, the singer is able to cast away his usual worries “until tomorrow”.
Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind certainly suggests that the Tambourine Man shares cannabis with the singer to help him escape "crazy sorrow" where all is Winter. He brings the singer to the edge of existence, to the shoreline border between elevation and depth. Here the singer assents to the idea of freedom, where he will dance beneath the stars, (we've returned to nighttime imagery) and swim out into the waves and drown where there's no tomorrow. He assents to this without having done it yet. This image is picked up again with Jim Morrison wooing his lover into the water (in the Doors' Moonlight Drive) and in the Jimi Hendrix Experience sci-fi 1983 in which the singer finds he can breathe underwater.
Dylan always denied that Mr. Tambourine Man is about drugs. According to several sources, he was using marijuana at the time the song was written; he was not introduced to LSD until a few months later. If I put aside any reference to an altered mental state (outside of being strung out from lack of sleep), the song still evokes the pleasurable ecstasy of getting inside the music’s beat. The song might be interpreted as an appeal for inspiration from the muse. Tambourines were ubiquitous in much of the pop music of the 1960s, and their effect continued to be strong into the disco era a decade later, when it was not uncommon for dancers to bring their own tambourines to the club in order to encourage a frenzy in the crowd.
The Tambourine Man offered not only his gypsy music but soma, something to help forget "crazy sorrow" and "forget about today until tomorrow". He offered a different reality when the singer felt his present reality too confining, too stripped of sense. He offered the promise of freedom of mind to make a virtual reality through music and poetry. Maybe by thinking it, the singer’s ideals would become reality, and this dead world could change for the better. But first, Dylan seems to say, he must willing to face danger and death, be willing to admit to himself that he may appear foolish. Actually that's as far as Dylan goes in this song; he doesn't seem to envision coming back to reality in order to enrich it (as was John Lennon's vision) with simple idealism. Dylan is more realistic. The impulse is rather "let's live for today, for there may not be tomorrow”, widely the reaction of American teenagers and young men and women to the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Making the world a better place was left (at the time) to the anti-war and civil rights protesters, the very people Dylan was at the time turning away from so he could begin to experience an interior life not bound up in causes. While working on the album Another Side Dylan had moved away from the protest music that had made his reputation; he now referred to the poetry of his earlier career as “finger pointing songs”.
Dylan finished writing Mr. Tambourine Man in April, and played it in performances throughout 1964. An original demo was taped with accompaniment by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in June 1964, but Dylan held back on a final recording until preparing for his following album, Bringing It All Back Home, which was issued in March 1965. In that album version, Bruce Langhorne's electric guitar accompanies Dylan’s acoustic guitar, and provides a countermelody to the vocals. Dylan plays a harmonica solo during the break that evokes the narrator's internal daydream.