Mr Tambourine Man: analysis


Kandisky – 1939


Mr Tambourine Man
The time is early morning after a sleepless night. The narrator calls on Mr Tambourine to play a song and says he will follow him. In the course of the four verses he expounds on this situation often using ambiguous imagery, though the desire to be freed by the tambourine man’s song remains clear.


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.
Delirious from a lack of sleep, upset and a bit  disoriented the narrator requests a song from his imaginary friend, Mr. Tambourine Man.  Some say this  character was inspired by Bruce Langhorne, who used to play a large Turkish frame drum in performances and recordings. The drum had small bells attached around its interior, giving it a jingling sound much like a tambourine

Verse 1
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.

Dylan began composing this song in February 1964, after attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The Mardi Gras festivities had built “empires” in the narrator  mind, but come dawn, everyone left and he is lonesome. We all  tend to build up an event we are attending into something much greater than it actually is, and of course are left disappointed.
The image of sand here represents the passing of time  and dissipation of our dreams. The narrator is left with nothing but disappointment at the passing of the ‘evening’ (time) and the vanishing of the ‘empire’ (his expectations). He can’t even imagine what to do next; he stands ‘blindly’.
He’s been awake and on his feet so long that they  feel burnt. He has no more dreams, but only  desperate loneliness

Verse 2
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.

The narrator desires to go on a trip with Mr. Tambourine Man, he is ready to go anywhere. Although Dylan may have been  using marijuana at the time  this song was written, he has denied that it is a reference to drugs.  This is a trip on a magical boat, without control,  as his feet seem to travel on their own. It sounds  like an out-of-body experience. (2)
He doesn’t need the wild parades of New Orleans’s streets any longer because he can .be satisfied with the one he can create in his imagination.. This parade may be seen as a way
way of finding an escape to get to freedom, the final goal. And to achieve it, the narrator promises to follow, to do anything he can

Verse 3

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.

Our lives as the world turns are imagined in a cosmic  trip in the solar system. There are no boundaries, and the narrator is simply a ragged clown whose skipping reels of rhyme  look for meaning., but in his quest he can  only follow shadows (3).
Yet we have an ultimate goal, and a need to move forward without worrying about the past, because the best way of owning life is to walk onto the future.

Verse 4

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.

The protagonist is seeking something deeper than his ephemeral or egocentric needs, is disappearing in something universal,  has visions of going to other places, not only  outside his physical  experience but also his  psyche. He navigates through time and space, escaping humanity and civilization altogether. and  the place where he is going makes him dance and forget all pain and sorrow.
To dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free.” is pure poetry. (4) and offers an image of  an ecstatic person who has attained a state of rapture. Also the alliteration in the following line is great,  reproducing the sound made by the waves of the sea
Here the sand is real, that of the beach, and  the narrator wants to dance crazily on it, so it becomes circus sand, on which  the ragged clown of verse 3, can move happily, forgetting about reality. Circled… circus, with  the repetition of the same root word,  emphasizes  the sands surrounding him on all sides and may refer to Dylan’s audience.
His memories of the past and expectations of the future are all drowned deep in the ocean, and he is temporarily able to live in the moment, leaving any other connection behind.

(to be continued)

14 thoughts on “Mr Tambourine Man: analysis

  1. I love this song. I can vividly remember one day when I was waiting for my girl friend to get off from work and join me for a ride to her family’s home. It was a wintry and gray day. I was listening to the song on a local am radio station. Thanks for the blessing of this article.

    Liked by 1 person

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