The legendary Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” has been a favorite of people across the globe – from concert halls to campfires – since its release in 1965. It has been covered by many credible artists, with the Byrd’s version being the most famous. Dylan utilizes poetic metaphors and abstract imagery to portray his message: the source of inspiration. Because the song’s metaphors are pretty recondite, I’m mainly going to focus on interpreting the lyrics rather than delving into its background or Dylan’s inspirations for the song.
Okay, time to get down to business.
“Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is 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.”
The character of Mr. Tambourine Man serves as symbolism for inspiration in much the same way as the nine muses of ancient Greek mythology. It is Mr. Tambourine Man that grants inspiration to artists at unexpected times, as if on a whim. In the chorus, the singer is calling out for inspiration, or Mr. Tambourine Man, to come to him so that he can be lead down the path of creation and ultimately to the conception of a masterpiece.
“Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but 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.”
In the second verse, Dylan describes a world in which inspiration can not easily be found. “Evenin’s empire” is a metaphor for the state of mind or place he was in when composing past masterpieces. Now it has “returned into sand” and “vanished from my hand”, meaning that he is now no longer able to reach that creative state. Dylan is essentially describing a writer’s block, in which he is worn from trying to surpass a creative hurdle. He describes the world as “an ancient empty street”. This is a metaphor for the fact that he is unable to find new inspiration – everything seems to have already been used.
“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.”
Dylan describes the experience of being in an inspired, creative state as if it is a magical trance of sorts. He claims that his “senses have been stripped”, meaning that in the midst of creation one’s focus is totally devoted to the task at hand and is oblivious to the surrounding environment. In this state, a person is simply carried away by the inspiration that has struck him/her and nothing else matters. There is no telling where you could be taken once inspiration hits you, but you cannot fight it. Rather you must “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.”
There is an obvious juxtaposition between the first and second half of this fourth verse. The first three lines further delve into the nature of inspiration. It may seem wild, mad, and chaotic at times (many of the greatest minds and artists are at least a tad eccentric) and it strikes at random. Due to its boundless nature however, inspiration may lead to infinite possibilities because “there are no fences facing”. The second half of verse four suggests that there is something that inhibits creation, described as a “shadow”. Dylan describes “skippin’ reels of rhyme”, a reel meaning a mechanism used to wind something up. Therefore “skipping’ reels of rhyme” is likely describing a phrase that repeats and is perhaps catchy but meaningless, such as a commercial slogan or jingle. Dylan heeds the listener to not follow this shadow, meaning the distractions of the material world if the listener wishes to enter the state of inspiration. The “ragged clown” represents the average person who blindly pursues a superficial life, thinking that it will bring him happiness and fulfillment in life, when in reality a materialistic life will likely not lead to any sort of innovation or achievement. In order to successful create, one must tune out the distractions in life. Sometimes it is seclusion, or being alone that allows a person to channel his/her creativity. This isolation would allow for the person to find inspiration from his/herself. For others, remoteness is not the answer but rather immersion so that inspiration may be found in the surrounding world and its inhabitants.
” 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.”
In Dylan’s final verse, he discusses how innovation can help a person to overcome their own personal sorrows by becoming lost in his/her respective art. He uses a series of metaphors to accomplish this. To “disappear through the smoke rings of my mind” is to transcend above all the general troubles that plague us in life. “The foggy ruins of time” are all of the buried memories that he would rather were left forgotten. Once he passes through the various locations that represent bad memories, Dylan eventually arrives at “the windy beach”, the place where his thoughts are clear of doubt, the enemy of creativity. Here, he is free to embrace all that inspiration has to offer. Dylan’s description of artistic creation is that of complete and utter freedom, where he can “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free”. Now that “memory and fate” have been “driven beneath the waves”, there is nothing that can stop him from creation because the only one who ever truly had the power to prevent creation from occurring was himself. Now that he has entered the state of inspiration, there is no escaping until inspiration, or Mr. Tambourine Man, decides to let him go. The phrase “let me forget about today until tomorrow” illustrates the fact that for the time being, he is completely and utterly invested in his craft and his craft alone – nothing else matters.
Because there are a number of great versions of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, I’ve included a few of my favorites apart from the video at the top.
This is the Byrd’s version of the song, which is almost as highly praised as the original.
And for all you Trekkies out there, I’ll throw in William Shatner’s, well … interesting version.
Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” is truly a lyrical masterpiece and an inspiration in itself. Please keep in mind that this is simply my interpretation of the song, and if you find that it portrays a different message or that I got something wrong. Please let me know in the comment section.