She'll hand to you a stick of sandalwood,
A little smile and then she'll disappear
Back into a crowd of happy people
Looking like they never came from here.
Strange thing, gathering of tribes (2x)
A Macedonian and a pilot comes
A' laughing at a German jest or joke
A friendly motorcycle angel comes
To sit and talk awhile and share a smoke.
Pretty little whirling butterfly
All the prettiest girls go dancing by
Caught up in the sound of talking drums
Lost herself out in the wheel of sky.
Tim Connors in his Byrd Watcher web site rightfully observes that Tribal Gathering is a sort of sequel to Renaissance Fair, which Crosby wrote with Roger McGuinn and released in February 1967 on the album Younger Than Yesterday. It has traditionally been understood that the song celebrated the Gathering of the Tribes in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on January 12, 1967, but Crosby is quoted in two books [Ric Menck: The Notorious Byrds Brothers 33 1/3 (2007), p. 123, and Christopher Hjort: So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star: The Byrds Day-By-Day (2008), p. 127] that the song was inspired by an earlier event in Los Angeles.
Until the last third of the song, the melody is breezy jazz reminiscent of 50s vocal groups like the Four Freshmen. It’s odd to give a hippie event this smooth collegiate bebop overlay but it does communicate fine weather out of doors and an easy mingling of people. Incense is important as it had been in Renaissance Fair, which begins by singing of cinnamon and spices. We are told of the easy sharing of joints between people who wouldn’t normally have mixed socially, and the lyric ends with a girl twirling herself into ecstatic dizziness under a whirling sky.
I have difficulty following in the second verse how the Macedonian and the pilot and the German interrelate and my confusion does not communicate an easy relation between the three parties, who seem to be laughing because they misunderstand each other. But a good third of the song is an instrumental featuring a loud and abrasive fuzz tone electric guitar coda. Tim Connors submits that this is the Hell’s Angels arriving on the scene. It’s certainly aggressive. In the Doors' hands this would have sounded ominous. Tribal Gathering makes this psychedelic break an extension of a girl’s dizzy whirling to the sound of African talking drums.