"MR. TAMBOURINE MAN": The year-long journey of folk-rock's defining song, from Bob Dylan's typewriter to the Byrds' hit recording in the studio

In February 1964, as the Beatles were winning over the country with their first visit to the United States, Bob Dylan was making an offbeat American tour of his own. His three-week cross-country trip from New York to California was indeed punctuated by a few concerts. But it was mostly a chance to do his own 1960s version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, accompanied by three hipster friends and much booze and marijuana. There were visits to miners in Kentucky, poet and song collector Carl Sandburg in North Carolina, and the site where Kennedy had been shot less than three months before in Dallas. For light relief, there were also a couple of days of revelry at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It was in New Orleans, Dylan later remembered, that he did some work on "Mr. Tambourine Man." It was one of several songs he started composing on the trip, using a typewriter in the back of the station wagon.

    "Mr. Tambourine Man," like the other material Dylan was developing in early 1964, was emblematic of his escape from the shackles of topical songwriting into more abstract imagery, often suggesting a search for liberation from both external and internal prisons. That quest was quite apparent in another of the songs he worked on during his journey, "Chimes of Freedom," its call for the abolition of repression not tethered to any specific political or social movement. "Mr. Tambourine Man" went yet further, evoking not just escape from bondage but an altered state of perception, with its plea for transportation through mystical ships and corridors of time to a land of diamond-studded skies. It was not, on the face of it, the stuff of which Top 40 hits were made. It was not the kind of thing which the author himself could replicate. "I tried to write another 'Mr. Tambourine Man,'" he admitted to NME in 1969, years after the song had become an acknowledged classic. "It was the first and last time I tried to write a song in the same vein as another. I worked on it, but it didn't happen, so I left it."

    Dylan cut both "Chimes of Freedom" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" at the marathon one-day session on June 9, 1964 that yielded the entire Another Side of Bob Dylan album. "Chimes of Freedom" was a highlight of the LP, yet "Mr. Tambourine Man," for some reason, was excluded. Dylan told writer Martin Bronstein in March 1966 that he "felt too close to it to put it on." It also may be that the one take he attempted in the studio was simply not judged appropriate or good enough to do justice to the song. For this performance, Dylan enlisted help from his old Village buddy Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who contributed rather wayward vocal harmonies to Bob's first attempt to use backup singing on an official session.

    Elliott has said that his timing was erratic in part because, in keeping with Dylan's usual seat-of-the-pants approach to recording, Jack wasn't fully conversant with the lyrics by the time the tape rolled. "I said, 'Do you have the words, Bob?'" he told Acoustic Guitar Magazine in 1995. "He said, 'No, I know this one.' So I harmonized on the chorus, because I didn't know the song all the way through." In the San Francisco Examiner the following year, he judged the end product harshly: "They made a tape of Dylan and me, 'Hey, Tambourine Man' [sic]. I listened to it once, and I never want to hear it again. It was real bad singing. Amazingly bad."

    Elliott's judgement was unreasonably severe, but certainly there was room for improvement before a final track could be put in the can. Running nearly seven minutes, the pace was lugubrious, the accompaniment limited to basic guitar chords, the phrasing and timing awkward in places. That's not to say it was terrible; certainly the song's strength was abundantly evident. Not much more work would have been needed for it to comfortably meet the standards of the rest of Another Side of Bob Dylan, but for the time being, it was shelved.

    It was too good a song to disappear, and Dylan incorporated it into his live set in mid-1964, suggesting he hadn't entirely abandoned intentions to eventually record it. He played it at, ironically, the topical song workshop at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, and at a Halloween concert at the New York Philharmonic Hall that was recorded for a possible live album (which didn't come out, though it's often been bootlegged). It also turned out that the Dylan-Elliott attempt at recording the tune hadn't been entirely banished to the closet, as a promotions man named Jack Mass passed on an acetate to Jim Dickson.

    Dickson had already been an active champion of Dylan's material before working with the Byrds, suggesting Dylan songs to several artists in his stable. The Dillards had done a then-unreleased Dylan tune, "Walkin' Down the Line," on their 1964 live album. Dickson and Hamilton Camp took the strategy of unearthing obscure Dylan tunes to new heights on Camp's 1964 Elektra Paths of Victory LP, which had no less than seven Dylan songs, six of which had yet to be released on Dylan's own Columbia records (and a couple of which have still not been released on Dylan's official albums). Camp, interestingly, says this mini-archeological exercise in Dylanology was not Dickson's idea, but Jac Holzman's: "Dylan was hot, so Jac thought it was very smart to put more Dylan tunes on there. Much to my regret," he adds, as he would have rather had a more diverse selection of material. (Dickson has a different recollection: "Camp already was as into Dylan as I was and sang what he wanted on that album.")

    Dickson had also recorded a couple of songs off Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' album in 1964 with the Hillmen, the bluegrass band with Chris Hillmen, Vern Gosdin, and Rex Gosdin. Recording Dylan tunes with bluegrass bands was still a radical idea for the time (though the Dillards had done so), and the Hillmen material lay unissued for five years until it was dusted off for an archival release in 1969. Vern Gosdin, who by the late '70s would be a mainstream country star, reflects, "I got as much respect for Bob Dylan as anybody. I think he's a great artist. But at that particular time, I just didn't see it. Jim Dickson gave my brother and I a Bob Dylan album to listen to, and I couldn't get into it. Tried everything, but couldn't, and gave it back to him. Next thing I know, the Byrds came up and started doing it."

    As Dickson emphasizes, in his experiments with crossing folk with other kinds of styles, "the biggest problem was the songs and the search for new stuff. I was very enamored with what Dylan was writing, as well as Dino [Valenti], Tim Hardin, etc. While recording the Camp album, I worked out a good relation with Witmark, the publisher for Dylan. I heard that Dylan had done a session and was not including 'Tambourine Man,' as he had tried it as a duet with Jack Elliott and was not happy with the result. The west coast rep for Witmark, Jack Mass, was able to get me an acetate from that session, and I became a little obsessed with it. I did think everyone should sing Dylan at the time. I once made a demo with Eartha Kitt with Dylan's 'Oxford Town.'"

    In the "Mr. Tambourine Man" acetate, he had a hidden jewel: a song as yet unreleased not only by Dylan but by anyone, and a song as good as any Dylan had written. Dickson had approached Clarence White (of the Kentucky Colonels) about doing the song before introducing it to a young group for which it seemed a natural fit, considering they were well on their way to mixing the Beatles and folk music anyway. There was a considerable problem to contend with before he could pass it on to the Byrds, however. At first, the group balked at doing the song.

    Roger McGuinn elaborates: "I'd seen Dylan in the Village, and I wasn't really a big fan of his, you know? He was basically a Woody Guthrie imitator when I saw him, in like '61, '62, whenever he first got there." On Entertainment Tonight in 1987, David Crosby was blunter, sharing a reaction that was common among many, as late as 1964, to Dylan's uncompromisingly keening vocals: "I was totally resistant to the idea. It's Dylan?! All that scratchy weer-neer-neer-neer ... I didn't like it at all." (Even ultra-fan John Lennon described Dylan as a "neigher" in Melody Maker in early 1965.)

    "I was already into mixing folk and rock, so we probably would have gone in that direction," speculates McGuinn. "We would have done 'Turn! Turn! Turn!' and 'Bells of Rhymney' and other songs that I knew as folk songs. But I'm sure we would not have gone into 'Tambourine Man,' because I didn't know about the song. Dickson was very helpful in that respect."

    "Nobody was really keen on 'Tambourine Man' as I recall when we first heard it," says Hillman. "Maybe McGuinn, but I don't know if anybody else was. But Dickson pounded it into our head, literally, to go for a little more depth in the lyric, and really craft the song, and make something you can be proud of ten to fifteen years down the road. He was absolutely right. We were wise-guy little punk kids, and he was our big brother/father figure, but he had a tremendous influence on the Byrds. He pushed for 'Tambourine Man,' and put himself out on the line for that one. And he was right."

    He had to push hard. Initially it was sung by Gene Clark, but it was dropped from their rehearsal set, such was the limpness of their enthusiasm. Crosby, says Dickson, was particularly resistant to the song, and "talked Gene out of 'Tambourine Man.' McGuinn said he would like to try it. I watched it grow and McGuinn find a new voice that would serve him quite well." Dickson then played his ultimate ace, getting Dylan himself involved. Dickson already knew Dylan and his assistants/buddies Bobby Neuwirth and Victor Maymudes, and all three of them dropped by World Pacific to check out the Byrds during an L.A. visit (an event Dickson places in mid-1964). The young band's manager "knew they were coming and had the Byrds rehearse 'Tambourine Man' again. They hung out for hours, played, and made friends." As a member of the group told Record Mirror in August 1965: "Bob [Dylan] turned up to hear us go through it maybe a dozen times. So Bob eventually said: 'They do it well.' Which is like a million-word work of praise coming from him."

    The magnificent harmonies that did much to enable the song's choruses to seize the world's hearts were also hard earned. Dean Webb of the Dillards has an anecdote to illustrate not just the work that went into the polish of those harmonies, but also the little-discussed connection between bluegrass and the birth of folk-rock. "I was driving by World Pacific Studios, and I happened to see Dickson's old Volkswagen siting there," he remembers. "I stopped by to see what was going on. I go in there, and they're working on 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' and they couldn't seem to get anything going, as far as the harmony that they were trying. And they started getting into it, more or less, over trying to do this. So Dickson asked me what I would do with it, as far as harmony was concerned.

    "I said, 'Okay. Leave the lead singer in there,' which happened to be McGuinn. The other guys go out of the room. I sang the first part of harmony, or the tenor part, and then they played the tape back, and I put the baritone part on the tape, and then they learned the parts from what I did, triad harmonies, the way possibly we would have done it. And it worked for 'em." Adds Dickson: "Dean Webb did put a harmony part on a Byrd demo tape in order for me to show Crosby what I wanted on 'Tambourine Man,' as he stubbornly clung to a more modern harmony that didn't fit."

    A take of "Mr. Tambourine Man" that surfaced on the Preflyte collection of rehearsal tapes indicates the group's problems in coming to grips with the song. Although the skeleton of the arrangement heard on the famous hit version is there, there's an awkward stiffness, particularly in Michael Clarke's elementary drumming, which is far more suited for a high school marching band than a rock one. (The In the Beginning CD unearthed a yet more primitive version from their rehearsals that lacked a drum set, leaving actual tambourine rattles to carry the shaky rhythm.) Knowing how unlikely a seven-minute song would be to get airplay of any sort in early 1965, they had already made a severe compromise, cutting out all but one of the four verses, instead centering their interpretation upon the insinuating chorus, which opened and closed the tune. When it finally came time to record the song for an official Columbia single on January 20, 1965, an even tougher compromise would be in order.

    In 1965, as in many if not all other eras of popular music, it was common for session musicians to play some or all of the parts on records credited to groups that, as far as the public knew, played their instruments both in the studio and on stage. Even when the Byrds did their single for Elektra as the Beefeaters, they'd used a couple of session vets. And that was Elektra, still a relatively scrappy if well-respected indie. Columbia was one of the biggest record labels in the world. It was not going to leave anything to chance, especially considering that the Byrds had barely any experience on record, with the marginal exception of McGuinn. Session players were going to be used. Had they objected, the Byrds had virtually no leverage. Not only had they never recorded for Columbia before (or for anyone under their new name), only three of the five -- McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby, all of whom did sing on the final track -- were actually signed to a Columbia contract. Hillman and Clarke did not sing or play on the cut at all.

    Overseeing the session was Terry Melcher. The young Columbia staff producer, like several who played a strong part in folk-rock's evolution on record, was at first glance an odd choice to take the helm. His background was California pop-rock, both as a producer and as a performer, in which capacity he'd recorded with future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston as half of the surf music duo Bruce & Terry. His quick climb up Columbia's ladder was no doubt aided by being the son of Doris Day, one of Columbia's biggest pop stars since the 1940s. During the time he handled the early Byrds (producing their first two albums), the other chief hitmakers under his charge were Paul Revere & the Raiders, the mainstream (if sometimes very tough) pop-rock band that had a residency on Dick Clark's television show Where the Action Is.

    But if the Byrds' choices were limited to Columbia's staff, Melcher was nonetheless the best option. It didn't hurt that he had already played on a single with McGuinn, on the already-forgotten "Beach Ball" single by the City Surfers a couple of years back. As Doris Day's son, he was unlikely to be messed with too much by company fat cats. His very presence in the producer's booth signaled a loosening of corporate restraints. Since the mid-1950s, Columbia had been the slowest of the major labels in embracing rock'n'roll, hindered by head A&R man (and easy listening star) Mitch Miller's well-publicized hatred for the music. With the Beatles rewriting the rules of the record industry, Columbia now had no choice but to try and catch up, directing many of its efforts through its Los Angeles branch. Melcher was virtually the only producer there who was roughly the same age as rock musicians and, just as importantly, loved rock itself.

    As such he was an important advocate for the Byrds and similar groups within the starched-shirt ranks of Columbia. "Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher were the first pals I had in my life who loved rock'n'roll, who were in rock'n'roll," explains Billy James, who had done publicity for Dylan in New York, and had recently taken the position as manager of information services for Columbia's L.A. office. "Through my friendship with them and my respect for them, I began to develop an appreciation for rock'n'roll." Though the appreciation was not always reciprocated by less open-minded Columbia personnel than James, who elaborates: "The West Coast A&R department was something of a thorn in the side of the home office in New York. Terry and Bruce were not typical corporate record company producers. There was a lack of comprehension and appreciation for the changes that were going on in popular music in general, and for what Bruce and Terry were doing in particular, at Columbia."

    The logs for the "Mr. Tambourine Man" session list a number of A-level L.A. studio hands as players on the track: Jerry Cole on rhythm guitar, Larry Knechtel on bass, Leon Russell (then several years away from beginning a successful solo career) on electric piano, and Hal Blaine, famous as drummer on many Phil Spector and Beach Boys hits. With McGuinn on electric 12-string, this is the lineup that's generally considered to have performed on the single, though, interestingly, bassist Gary Marker (soon to be in another Columbia folk-rock group, the Rising Sons) believes it wasn't the only one that tried.

    "I was called in as a kind of 'floater' when the Byrds were recording what I believe was one of many versions of the basic track for Dylan's 'Tambourine Man'," he remembers. "I wasn't even called by Melcher, it may have been some A&R mucky-muck above him -- because the sessions weren't going well, or so I understood. I was supposed to stand by with my acoustic bass. I think there was a possibility that someone might step in and hijack the session from Terry, if he didn't get results this time. Lurking in the control booth, I recall looking out into studio A (aka 'The Basketball Court' because of its size) and seeing McGuinn on 12-string, Crosby [who had taken the rhythm guitar slot in the band after Hillman took over the bass] on six-string, Leon Russell on harpsichord (I think), Hal Blaine on drums. I recollect Joe Osborne as being the bassist on that session, not Knechtel. What absolutely stunned me was seeing Barney Kessel, a mainstay of the L.A. jazz scene, also on rhythm guitar."

    There was even some thought of using Glen Campbell as lead guitarist. That might seem peculiar to those who know him primarily as a middle-of-the-road pop star, but if a session musician was to be used at all, he would have been a logical choice. He played on many rock dates before his solo career really got off the ground in 1967. He had also played the kind of 12-string guitar lines that would be central to the Byrds' records before, on Jackie DeShannon's seminal "Needles and Pins," and (with Dickson producing) the Folkswingers' 12 String Guitar album. Fortunately for everyone concerned, McGuinn played the 12-string in the end, which was crucial to establishing his Rickenbacker ring as a signature to the Byrds' identity right out of the gate on their Columbia releases.

    Hillman, relegated to the sidelines, nonetheless understands and even defends the use of session men on the single. "Sometimes I wonder, would it have been interesting for us to have cut a version. It might have taken away a bit of that slick pop sound. It's almost too slick. But it's okay. At the time, we weren't ready to cut that song.

    "In those days, we got a singles deal: you know, 'If you guys do good with a single, we'll see if we can let you do an album.' I think, in hindsight, those were the right moves to make. Roger had more time on the battlefield as a backup player. He had good time. He could be out there with session guys and do it. We weren't disciplined enough in that area. I had done lots of sessions on mandolin, but bass, it was another animal. It was a brand-new deal. For me to be next to Hal Blaine on that song, yeah, I probably could have pulled it off. But not as well as Larry Knechtel.

    "And it does stand up 37 years later. You hear it on the radio, it's a good piece of music. Regardless of if there's session players on that song, or if we'd have cut it. It's a great song."

    McGuinn's 12-string guitar was the very first sound heard on what was indeed a great single. It was, by far, a more dramatic rearrangement of a Dylan song than any that had ever been attempted. Inspired by Bach as much as by folk and rock, McGuinn's opening and closing riffs were seductive, hypnotic, and joyous. Knechtel's bass zoomed up in counterpoint to McGuinn's lead almost immediately after McGuinn's unaccompanied intro. The choruses and verses were changed from the lugging 2/4 beats of Dylan's acetate to the more standard 4/4 of rock music, the rhythm guitar on the Byrds' version specifically inspired by the kind that had recently anchored the Beach Boys' classic "Don't Worry Baby." The singers' harmonies, especially in conjunction with McGuinn's 12-string bed, created an entrancing haze that heightened the mystical tenor of the lyrics. McGuinn himself took the solo vocal on the one verse that had been lifted of the original four from Dylan's demo. His quavering, likable, yet enigmatic voice, as he has repeatedly said since, was an attempt, and a very successful one, to hit an exact midpoint between Bob Dylan and John Lennon.

    The result was that elusive treasure in the evolution of popular music: a new sound, albeit one that wouldn't get tagged with a name for a few months yet. Quite apart from the innovative brilliance of the music, never had lyrics of such literary quality and ambiguous meaning been used on a rock record. This is not to say that there had not been brilliant lyrics, some not even tied to conventional romantic scenarios, since rock had started. There had been Chuck Berry's ironic stories of traveling guitarists and young kids growing awkwardly into adults, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's comic vignettes of everyday teenage frustrations as sung by the Coasters, along with numerous other examples. "Mr. Tambourine Man" took pop song language, however, to a different level. It also supplied an entirely different tributary of material to the Byrds themselves. As good as Gene Clark's songs were, had they had to rely primarily upon those, it's quite possible that they would have been something like a Searchers or Beau Brummels with somewhat greater depth and nuance.

    Some would argue that much of "Mr. Tambourine Man"'s impact had been lost by the Byrds' decision to chop out most of the verses and concentrate on the choruses, but what remained was plenty enough to sustain intellectual curiosity. It was not a message song, unless the message was to provoke similar thoughts of exploration and cerebral ecstasy in its listeners. Its free-associative imagery have led some to peg it as one of the first drug-inspired songs, though Dylan denied this. In the liner notes to his Biograph box set, he cited guitarist Bruce Langhorne -- a session guitarist who had worked with him as far back as the early 1960s, and would play on key folk-rock recordings by Dylan and many others -- as the inspiration: "On one session, Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine. It was like, really big. It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind." ("He's the tambourine king, lest you doubt!" exclaimed Richard Fariña when he introduced Langhorne from the stage as one of his accompanists during Richard & Mimi Fariña's set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.)

    Though the Byrds were interpreters and not the composers, they did have their own thoughts about what the song might be reflecting. In Mike Jahn's book Rock, McGuinn told the author that it was "a head trip. It takes you into some area that you really can't put your finger on. You're not exactly sure what it's about. I don't think Dylan was exactly sure what it's about. It's an impressionistic song." He further speculated that it could deal with "the depersonalization of cities" and "some sort of  spiritual release which says 'wait a minute, man, there's a way out ...some other approach to life.'"

    It remains a source of controversy, and even consternation, that what is roundly acknowledged as the first classic folk-rock recording could have been subject to so many commercial considerations. The use of session men in particular rankles purists, and not just folk ones. It can be hard for them to accept the song, largely played by L.A. musicians not in the band credited on the label, as an authentic expression of all the forces that had been working to bring folk and rock closer together. The group to this day has to fend off accusations that it did not play on its records, though in fact after this debut single, the Byrds were allowed to play their own instruments on all of their subsequent recordings. The recording that same day of an excellent Gene Clark original, his characteristically moody love song "I Knew I'd Want You," for the B-side might have mollified any queasiness about whether the group was just a front for a studio creation. And even with only the participation of the front trio's vocals and McGuinn's 12-string, both sides of the single are amazingly close in feel and sound to almost everything else the Byrds would record as a proper band throughout the next three years, right down to the hum-drone of the bass lines.

    "Mr. Tambourine Man"'s year-long journey from the back of Dylan's station wagon to a rock hit- single-in-the-waiting was an extraordinary confluence of business and artistic interests, many of them initiated by people other than the Byrds. There was Dylan to thank for writing the song in the first place, naturally; Dickson for forcing it into their repertoire; and Melcher and the Los Angeles session aces for knocking it into shape. There were also those unlikely behind-the-scenes figures who had little to do with rock or folk and yet, directly or inadvertently, eased the way for the Byrds to make it into Columbia's studio at all: Miles Davis, Doris Day, Naomi Hirshhorn.

    But none of them, and not even Bob Dylan himself, could have made the song into a hit single that spawned an entirely new style of rock music. More than anything else, it was the Byrds themselves who did it. And more than anything else, it was McGuinn's yearning, knowing vocal, and unique 12-string guitar playing, that made that happen. It was the culmination of his own year-long journey, begun when he dared to put a Beatle beat to folk songs in Greenwich Village folk clubs.

    Any celebration, though, would have to be put off for some time. Columbia did not immediately release the single, though a February 20, 1965 news item in Billboard headlined "Melcher Back with Columbia" intimated it was on its way, announcing that "among the artists working under Melcher's direction are the Birds [sic], a five-man vocal group who just cut a previously unreleased Bob Dylan tune for their first single." The Byrds could do nothing but wait, hope, and try to keep themselves together in the meantime.

There's much more on "Mr. Tambourine Man," the Byrds, Bob Dylan, and all of 1960s folk-rock in Turn! Turn! Turn: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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