“Mr. Tambourine Man” is a song written, composed, and performed by Bob Dylan, who released his original version of it on his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. The Byrds also recorded a version of the song that they released in the same year as their first single on Columbia Records, reaching number 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK Singles Chart, as well as being the title track of their debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man. The Byrds’ recording of the song was influential in popularizing the musical subgenres of folk rock and jangle pop, leading many contemporary bands to mimic its fusion of jangly guitars and intellectual lyrics in the wake of the single’s success.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was the debut single by the American band The Byrds and was released on April 12, 1965 by Columbia Records. The song was also the title track of the band’s debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man, which was released on June 21, 1965. The Byrds’ version is abridged and in a different key from Dylan’s original.
The single’s success initiated the folk rock boom of 1965 and 1966, many acts imitating the band’s hybrid of rock beat, jangly guitar, and poetic or socially conscious lyrics. The single, the “first folk rock smash hit”, gave rise to the very term “folk rock” in the U.S music press to describe the band’s sound.
This hybrid had its antecedents in the American folk revival of the early 1960s, The Animals’s rock-oriented recording of the folk song “The House of the Rising Sun,” the folk-influences present in the songwriting of The Beatles, and the twelve-string guitar jangle of The Searchers and The Beatles’s George Harrison. However the success of The Byrds’ debut created a template for folk rock that proved successful for many acts during the mid-1960s.
Most of the members of The Byrds had a background in folk music, since Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby had all worked as folk singers during the early 1960s. They had also spent time, independently of each other, in various folk groups, including The New Christy Minstrels, The Limeliters, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and Les Baxter’s Balladeers. In early 1964, McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby formed The Jet Set and started developing a fusion of folk-based lyrics and melodies, with arrangements in the style of The Beatles. In August 1964, the band’s manager Jim Dickson acquired an acetate disc of “Mr. Tambourine Man” from Dylan’s publisher, featuring a performance by Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Although the band members were initially unimpressed with the song, they eventually agreed to begin rehearsing and demoing it. In an attempt to make it sound more like The Beatles, the band and Dickson elected to give the song a full, electric rock band treatment, effectively creating the musical subgenre of folk rock. To further bolster the group’s confidence in the song, Dickson invited Dylan to hear the band’s rendition. Dylan was impressed, enthusiastically commenting, “Wow, you can dance to that!” His endorsement erased any lingering doubts the band had about the song. During this period, drummer Michael Clarke and bass player Chris Hillman joined, and the band changed their name to The Byrds over Thanksgiving 1964. The two surviving demos of “Mr. Tambourine Man” dating from this period feature an incongruous marching band drum part from Clarke but overall the arrangement, which utilized a 4/4 time signature instead of Dylan’s 2/4 configuration, is very close to the later single version.
The master take of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was recorded on January 20, 1965, at Columbia Studios in Hollywood, prior to the release of Dylan’s own version. The song’s jangling, melodic guitar playing (performed by McGuinn on a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar) was immediately influential and has remained so to the present day. The group’s complex harmony work, as featured on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” became another major characteristic of their sound. Due to producer Terry Melcher’s initial lack of confidence in The Byrds’ musicianship, McGuinn was the only Byrd to play on both “Mr. Tambourine Man” and its B-side, “I Knew I’d Want You.” Rather than using band members, Melcher hired The Wrecking Crew, a collection of top L.A. session musicians, who (with McGuinn on guitar) provided the backing track over which McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark sang. By the time the sessions for their debut album began in March 1965, however, Melcher was satisfied that the band was competent enough to record its own musical backing. Much of the track’s arrangement and final mixdown was modeled after Brian Wilson’s production work for the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”.
The Byrds’ recording of the song opens with a distinctive, Bach-inspired guitar introduction played by McGuinn and then, like Dylan’s version, goes into the song’s chorus. Although Dylan’s version contains four verses, The Byrds only perform the song’s second verse and two repeats of the chorus, followed by a variation on the song’s introduction, which then fades out. The Byrds’ arrangement of the song had been shortened during the band’s rehearsals at World Pacific Studios in 1964, at the suggestion of Jim Dickson, in order to accommodate commercial radio stations, which were reluctant to play songs that were over two-and-a-half minutes long. Thus, while Dylan’s version is five-and-a-half minutes long, The Byrds’ runs just short of two-and-a-half minutes. The lead vocal on The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was sung by McGuinn, who attempted to modify his singing style to fill what he perceived as a gap in the popular music scene of the day, somewhere between the vocal sound of John Lennon and Bob Dylan. The song also took on a spiritual aspect for McGuinn during the recording sessions, as he told The Byrds’ biographer Johnny Rogan in 1997: “I was singing to God and I was saying that God was the Tambourine Man and I was saying to him, ‘Hey, God, take me for a trip and I’ll follow you.’ It was a prayer of submission.”
The single reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 1 on the UK Singles Chart, making it the first recording of a Dylan song to reach number 1 on any pop music chart. Critic William Ruhlmann has argued that in the wake of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the influence of The Byrds could be heard in recordings by a number of other Los Angeles-based acts, including The Turtles, The Leaves, Barry McGuire, and Sonny & Cher. In addition, author and music historian Richie Unterberger sees the influence of The Byrds in recordings by The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and Love, while author John Einarson has noted that both The Grass Roots and We Five enjoyed commercial success by emulating The Byrds’ folk rock sound. Furthermore, a number of commentators, including Richie Unterberger, Scott Plangenhoef, and Ian MacDonald have noted that by late 1965, The Beatles themselves were assimilating the sound of folk rock, and in particular The Byrds, into the material found on their Rubber Soul album, most notably on the songs “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone”.
As the 1960s came to a close, folk rock changed and evolved away from the jangly template pioneered by The Byrds, but, Unterberger argues, the band’s influence could still be heard in the music of Fairport Convention. Since the 1960s, The Byrds’ jangly, folk rock sound has continued to influence popular music up to the present day, with authors Chris Smith, Johnny Rogan, Mark Deming, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine all noting the band’s influence on such acts as Big Star, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., The Long Ryders, The Smiths, The Bangles, The Stone Roses, Teenage Fanclub, and The La’s.
In addition to appearing on The Byrds’ debut album, “Mr. Tambourine Man” is included on several Byrds’ compilation and live albums, including The Byrds Greatest Hits, Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971, The Very Best of The Byrds, The Essential Byrds, The Byrds Play Dylan, and the live disc of The Byrds’ (Untitled) album. The Byrds’ version of the song also appears on compilation albums that include hit songs by multiple artists. Two earlier demo recordings of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, dating from the World Pacific rehearsal sessions, can be heard on The Byrds’ archival albums Preflyte, In the Beginning, and The Preflyte Sessions.