The British Invasion didn’t so much kill the folk music revival as put it out of its misery. What had begun as a virtuous quest to bring a sense of history and social conscience to popular music had ended up overly polished, collegiate and dull. But while some folkies dismissed rock and roll as inauthentic and commercialized, others recognized that it shared the directness and anti-establishment bent of protest songs. The Animals’ success with “House of the Rising Sun” proved a rock band could cover traditional material without sacrificing the music’s integrity; records by The Searchers, Jackie DeShannon and The Beatles further blurred genre lines. Rock and roll started gaining acceptance as a native art worth repatriating, and so American musicians began “bringing it all back home,” to quote the title of Bob Dylan’s half-electric, half-acoustic LP. The album wasn’t his first foray into rock and roll, either: his debut single, 1962’s “Mixed Up Confusion,” was backed by an electric band, while 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan found him moving increasingly toward pop song structures and themes. In May 1965, Dylan scored his first Top 40 hit with the Chuck Berry-biting “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The following month, another song from Bringing It All Back Home would even top the charts – just without Dylan.
“Mr. Tambourine Man,” as performed by The Byrds, was more than just a number-one record; it became the template for the entire folk rock subgenre. The record was the debut single for the band, a bunch of LA folkies (ex-New Christy Minstrels, -Limeliters, -Les Baxter’s Balladeers) converted to rock and roll by The Beatles, inspired not only by Lennon-McCartney’s melodies and George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker, but also their commercial success and distinctive image. The Byrds came to Dylan a bit later – their manager more or less forced him on the group* – but he soon became sort of the band’s patron saint, the tambourine man they’d spend the rest of the ’60s following. Four of his songs appear on their debut album, and he’d remain a steady source of material for most of their career.
The original “Mr. Tambourine Man” is one of Dylan’s early experiments with non-literal, stream-of-consciousness writing. While the specifics of what the title character represents are debatable – interpretations range from artistic inspiration to LSD to death – the narrator’s following him in hopes of a diversion from his numbing desolation, even if only for a short while. Dylan’s ever-ragged vocals and acoustic strumming emphasize the narrator’s dejected state, while Bruce Langhorne’s electric guitar countermelody offers the promise of an escape. For their cover, The Byrds cut all but the chorus and second verse, ostensibly to trim the track down to a radio-friendly 2:30. But abridging the lyrics shifts the song’s focus to the alluring new world (“the magic swirling ship”) instead of the narrator’s existential weariness. The Byrds’ arrangement, with its rolling guitar arpeggios and intertwining, sweet-voiced harmonies, further situates the song in some sort of peaceful dreamland, while altering the time signature from 2/4 to 4/4 ensures any vestiges of melancholy can be danced away in the warm California sunshine.
The Byrds knew their blend of folk and rock made a statement, but they seem conflicted on how to treat the new sound. There’s an overly formal quality to the record, an unwillingness to cut loose, that, along with the Bach-inspired guitar intro, insists on being taken seriously; but Jim (aka Roger) McGuinn’s simpering lead vocals come off as sardonic, as if mocking the material.** Thus it’s even more remarkable that by the time the Mr. Tambourine Man album was recorded, the rest of the tracks (particularly Gene Clark’s compositions) blend folk and rock so naturally as to render them inseparable. Less than a month after “Mr. Tambourine Man” topped the charts, Dylan released “Like a Rolling Stone,” a full-on rock single that would earn him his biggest hit (at #2) without having to lop off verses or polish up his sound. Next to “Like a Rolling Stone,” The Byrds’ single comes off as superficial, soft, self-conscious. But “Mr. Tambourine Man” proved there was an audience for this kind of music while providing a more accessible, imitable route into what folk rock could become — in the process, helping invent the Late Sixties as a cultural concern, its lineage stretching from folk rock, through psych rock, to Woodstock. 7
*Bassist Chris Hillman: “Jim Dickson picked the song [“Mr. Tambourine Man”]; we didn’t really like it or even understand it at the time, but he drove it down our throats until we realized what it was. That’s the way it went.” (Quoted in Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan)
**Part of the single’s stiffness may also be attributed to the fact McGuinn is the only Byrd actually playing on the record. The rest of the band was replaced by studio musicians for this session (though not for the album).
Hit #1 on June 26, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
139 of 1010 #1’s reviewed; 13.76% through the Hot 100