‘Mr Tambourine Man’

Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ as Beat poem     

 Laurence Coupe

 From: Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester: MUP, 2007)

Note: This discussion of the song comes towards the end of the chapter on Dylan, in which I demonstrate his debt to the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

In the earlier chapter on Kerouac, I outline his understanding of the term ‘Beat’, which was shared by Ginsberg.

Beat Sound, Beat Vision, pp 56-7

[Kerouac’s] reinvigoration of literary culture by drawing on possibilities previously ignored in popular culture, both as a writer and a man, is inseparable from his spiritual quest.  To understand this, we need to be alert to the connotations of the word ‘Beat’. We have already addressed these briefly in the Introduction; now we must examine them in detail. Our main task, then, is to consider carefully in turn the following three aspects of Kerouac’s work, showing how the third proceeds logically from the first two:

1.His development of a new style of writing inspired by jazz – particularly ‘bebop’ – and blues. This is ‘beat’ in the musical sense.

2.His fascination with the oppressed and dispossessed, with the figure of the hobo, tramp or bum. This is ‘beat’ in the sense of weary or worn down.

3.His conviction of a new kind of spiritual revelation, made possible by the first two dimensions. This is ‘beat’ in the sense of ‘beatific’.


In my chapter on Dylan, I precede my discussion of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ with a reference to two others of his mid-60s songs, ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘Visions of Joanna’.

Beat Sound, Beat Vision, pp 112-17

‘Gates of Eden’ is a song about our fallen world, as understood by contrast with the earthly paradise which, according to the Book of Genesis, we have lost. The Blakean twist of thought which Dylan adds is the proviso that paradise is by its very nature lost, since it is impossible for fallen humanity to conceive of it, except as the contrary state to the fallen world. The sacred may only be understood in dialectical relationship with the profane. Hence the litany of negatives which bring each verse to its climax: for example, there are ‘no kings inside the Gates of Eden’, and ‘no truths outside the Gates of Eden.’ Outside those gates, the world is populated by deluded souls: for example, the ‘savage soldier’ who ‘sticks his head in sand and then complains’, the ‘paupers’ who each wish ‘for what the other has got’, and the ‘princess’ and ‘prince’ who endlessly discuss ‘what’s real and what is not.’ Moreover, the ‘kingdoms of Experience’ [sic] which rot in the wind are dominated by spiritual manipulators, such as the ‘utopian monks’ who sit ‘sidesaddle on the Golden Calf’ making false ‘promises of paradise’, and by material oppressors, such as the ‘motorcycle black Madonna / Two-wheel gypsy queen’ who causes the ‘grey-flannel dwarf to scream’ (p. 175).

That last description, as we have seen, is decidedly Beat in idiom, being worthy of a Kerouac or a Ginsberg; but then, the whole song is an interesting ‘take’ on the beatific vision. It presents beatitude simultaneously from the perspective of both the earthly paradise (the life of innocence) and the wilderness of this world (the life of experience). It is deeply indebted to Blake. Robert Shelton, too, has noted this debt:

In 1793 Blake issued a series of pictorial emblems titled The Gates of Paradise.  In 1818, he reworked many of plates and added a text called ‘The Keys of the Gates’. The emblems traced man from cradle to grave, through various states of the soul’s desire and mortal frustration. To Blake the grave was not a place of death, but of spiritual mystery, echoing the Bible, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Swedenborg. Is ‘Gates of Eden’ both a Blakean song of innocence and of experience?[i]

It is a rhetorical question, surely. Dylan is demonstrating that he can revisit the visionary landscape of Blake just as productively as can Ginsberg. Moreover, as Shelton intuits here, Dylan is fully aware of the dialectic which informs Blake’s imagination — innocence and experience being ‘contrary states’, not opposed realms.

Another song from this period which manages to articulate the need for redemption from the depths of experience is one of the most striking achievements of the double-album, Blonde on Blonde (1966). ‘Visions of Johanna’ depicts life in the modern metropolis as alienated and fragmentary (‘We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it’), where even art offers no solace but rather a confirmation of disillusionment (‘Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues – you can tell by the way she smiles’). While ‘Louise and her lover’ lie ‘entwined’ in a warehouse apartment, the solitary figure who stands by and who narrates such story as the song contains can only hope for his visions of Johanna to be fulfilled. We note that she is referred to also as ‘Madonna’ — a word which seems to be used here with its full spiritual association, unlike the ironic allusion in ‘Gates of Eden’ (pp. 223-4). Echoing Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, Dylan’s song would seem to be about the hunger for beatific experience – the hope that the sacred realm might yet be glimpsed within the profane. Johanna, like Gerard, represents the salvation that comes out of suffering. But unlike Kerouac, Dylan depicts this possibility as tauntingly remote – a cause of suffering in itself. Thus, ‘Visions of Johanna’ is one of his major ‘songs of experience’, along with ‘Gates of Eden’.

As we have acknowledged, the Blakean dialectic makes no sense unless we understand that innocence and experience imply each other: innocence is shadowed by experience, just as experience gestures towards innocence. Ultimately, Blake would see a renewed innocence, stronger and more coherent than pre-lapsarian innocence, emerging out of experience; but meanwhile the poet’s task is to keep the dialectic of innocence and experience, sacred and profane, alive.  We need, then, to remind ourselves of this possibility, by way of return to the key album, Bringing It All Back Home, in order to consider the song which, more than any other of Dylan’s, celebrates the infinite potential of vision. I refer, of course, to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (pp. 172-3).

Unfortunately, the glib consensus over the years has been that its subject-matter is drugs. Besides the fact that Dylan himself has denied this hotly, it must be said that to interpret the figure of the tambourine man as a drug dealer is offensively reductive. To do so is to cut oneself off from the imaginative and spiritual potential of a great poem. In referring to the song as a poem, I am endorsing Ginsberg’s judgement, bearing in mind that Dylan’s is a poetry of performance rather than of the printed page. Relevant here is the fact that, though ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is featured on the first album of Dylan’s electric phase, the song itself is sung chiefly to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar (as with the earlier work). It seems to invite us to ponder the lyrics in depth, all of which are articulated with precision by the singer-songwriter. If we pre-empt their meaning by simply ‘ticking off’ any possible allusions to drugs, we are hardly doing the song justice.

So, having decided to take this work of art seriously, we have to ask ourselves who we think the ‘Tambourine Man’ of the title really is. Here we could do worse than to consult the text that Dylan has previously drawn upon, namely the Bible. In the Judaic scriptures, the playing of a tambourine is frequently associated with spiritual ecstasy. Thus: ‘Some of the people of Israel were playing music on small harps…and on tambourines… [King] David and the others were happy, and they danced for the Lord with all their might’ (2 Samuel 6:5). Dylan’s central symbol would seem, then, to be that of transcendence – or at least the desire for transcendence.  In other words, the quest is for an apprehension of holiness, for a sense of the sacred. But his song is not conventionally religious, so perhaps it is indebted as much to Blake as to the Bible. That is, the aim is to cleanse ‘the doors of perception’, to experience ‘Eternity in an hour’, in defiance of the dead weight of conformist consumerism. Here again we note the ‘Beat’ connection, for the tambourine man is the bearer of the ‘beatific’ vision, even while the singer indicates a state of being ‘beat’. Specifically, he asks him to ‘play a song for me’ at the moment when ‘My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet…’

The figure invoked, then is no more a religious teacher than he is a drug dealer: rather, he is the spirit of poetry or music. It is he who has the visionary power to transport the singer ‘upon your magic swirling ship’ and to ‘cast your dancing spell my way’. In this light, we might be tempted to see him as the traditional figure of the Muse; but we need to bear in mind both that the Muse has always been thought of as feminine, and that the function of the Muse is to inspire poets rather than to actually create poetry. Though we might want to say that Dylan is the poet/singer seeking inspiration, his own song is an appeal to some superior force to create the ultimate ‘song of songs’. Thus, the tambourine man is a personification of the power of poetry – poetry being understood, in traditional terms, as inseparable from music.

While the singer’s initial request to the tambourine man is that he ‘play a song for me’ in order that he can be followed in the ‘jingle jangle morning’ – a morning brought alive by the sound of the tambourine – the figure addressed is more than a mere fellow-practitioner. He represents the force of art itself, which transcends time even while those who are touched by it necessarily remain in time. For if ‘evening’s empire has returned into sand’ – the sand of an hourglass? the sand of the circus ring referred to later in the song? both simultaneously? – then we know that, so long as we live and breathe, we are part of the cycle of daily existence, during which evening and morning are endlessly repeated. The paradox is that, though time may appear to be the enemy of imagination – ‘the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming’ – it is only in time that one may choose to surrender to the ‘dancing spell’. In that moment, profane time is experienced as sacred time.

We can get closer to the heart of this paradox if we are open to the rich ambiguity of a line such as the following: ‘And but for the sky there are no fences facing.’ Now, the endless sky is an image of total freedom, but Dylan’s song reminds us that, though we have a great more spiritual potential than our society allows for, we are all of us necessarily constrained by the need to articulate our yearning for eternity and infinity in time and space. Hence the singer advises the tambourine man that, if he hears ‘vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme / To your tambourine in time,’ he should remind himself that it is only ‘a ragged clown’ or ‘shadow’ in pursuit. Poetry itself – this very poem, which calls out for another poem (‘play a song for me’) – works through certain agreed principles, such as ‘rhyme’. Even the ‘tambourine’ must be played ‘in time’. The ‘ragged clown’ who follows ‘behind’, as a ‘shadow’, knows this, even as he celebrates the vision of eternity which he attributes to the elusive figure whom he invokes and pursues. As Blake tells us: ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’[ii] Or, as Spengler suggests, the macrocosm is manifest in the microcosm. If the poet is he who can reveal eternity to us, he does so by means of the ‘skipping reels of rhyme’: in one aspect, they are what keep us where we are (as in the act of skipping); in another aspect, they are what makes possible the vision of eternity. The tambourine man would not exist in our imagination if some ‘shadow’ such as the singer of this song had not invoked him through the incantatory power of language.

So it is that the song concludes with the ‘ragged clown’ (he who is, we might say, ‘beaten down’ by time) knowing himself to be part of the ‘dance’ which the tambourine man creates (the ‘beatific’ vision, as it were). After the singer’s situation has been described in a series of negatives (‘there is no place I’m going to … I have no one to meet … my hands can’t feel to grip’), we come to the moment of affirmation: ‘Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free…’ Here the sky represents eternity, but we are not intended to forget that the very image of eternal freedom is one that involves temporal movement.

After all, ‘to dance beneath the diamond sky’ is a moment of illumination that the singer hopes for rather than one he claims to have had. If he were ever to reach a state ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’, he would have to be taken ‘Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, / The haunted frightened trees…’ That is, the imagination would have to comprehend all the trials and tribulations of human experience. Even then, on the ‘windy beach’ he would be ‘silhouetted by the sea’ and ‘circled by the circus sands’. Such images are deeply ambiguous. The sea might represent death just as much as dream, oblivion just as much as the infinite potential of the unconscious mind. The ‘circus sands’ might represent the absurd cycle of time – referring back to the image of ‘evening’s empire’ returning ‘into sand’ — just as much as the play of art which produces vision.

The affirmation stands, however, by virtue of the paradoxical relationship between time and eternity, between rhyme and vision, which the song revisits. The singer is entitled to feel that ‘memory and fate’ – past and future – have been ‘driven deep beneath the waves’, and that he can ‘forget about today until tomorrow’; but he knows that there is going to be a tomorrow, in which today will have become yesterday. Again, when he dances to the tune played by the tambourine man, he has ‘one hand waving free’: this is an image of constraint and abandonment simultaneously. But then, that is the very nature of imagination: it works through the dialectic between form and improvisation, between what one receives and what one gives.

It might be worth ending this account of the song with Dylan’s response to another question which he was asked at about this time: did he think of himself primarily as a singer or as a poet? He replied that he thought of himself ‘more as a song and dance man’.[iii] No doubt intended to undermine the more pompous claims made on his behalf, such as ‘spokesperson for a generation’, his choice of words is nonetheless revealing. His song, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, is a celebration of the power of the ‘song’ which is also a ‘dance’: one that releases us from the burden of time even as it follows the rhythm of time. Thus, perhaps ultimately the tambourine man represents that potential within ourselves to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’ and ‘to hold infinity in the palm of your hand’. The ‘ragged clown’ will always be ‘circled by the circus sands’, but in his capacity as ‘song and dance man’ he will surely find a way to ‘see a World in a grain of sand’. In the terms we have used from the outset, we might say that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is a classic example of the beatific vision: it pursues the possibility of spiritual freedom to the point of mystical transcendence, but remains faithful to the obligation of art to celebrate the profane world even as it makes manifest the sacred.


Please note that the full references are given in my book.

[i] Shelton, No Direction Home, p. 276.

 [ii] Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in Complete Poetry and Prose, p. 36.

[iii] Dylan, Bob Dylan In His Own Words, p. 73.