In his novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the writer Hunter S. Thompson opens proceedings with the dedication: “To Bob Dylan for ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.” While Thompson’s book seems to live more in the avant-garde world of emerging psychedelic rock than the timeless town of folk, thematically both pieces of art muse upon the sort of night so worth retaining that they seem to linger on in reality never mind the memory museum.
Likewise, they both seem to pit the fantastical realm of disbelief alongside the grounding of pinch yourself realism, as all the best nights do. As Bob Dylan once said about his folk masterpiece: “I’m not going to write a fantasy song. Even a song like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ really isn’t a fantasy. There’s substance to the dream. You have to have seen something or have heard something for you to dream it.”
Through poetry, Dylan takes one fateful night in New Orleans and renders it with the sort of universality that allows the world to play the protagonist in his waking dream of a golden evening drifting into dawn. In fact, he achieved this to such an extent that many believed that it was written by The Byrds all along after their cover was released as their debut single in April 1965, only a few weeks after Dylan’s release on the album Bringing it all Back Home.
While the song has the sort of careworn feel that harks back through eternities to such an extent that you could mistake it for a folk standard from a bygone time when the artists were lost to hand-to-mouth tales, it proved equally revolutionary moving forward. The Byrds might have changed the key and abridged the verses, but they furthered the rock element of the anthem and celebrated the continued coupling of rock ‘n’ roll and folk that Dylan was heralding by turning electric on his then-divisive 1965 record.
As it happens, this transition itself happened to have roots in the mystic past of foggy folk ballads. A year before Dylan went electric, The Animals scored a massive hit as they plucked a standard from the past and welcomed it into the visceral world of rock ‘n’ roll delivering the definitive version of the standard ‘House of the Rising Sun’.
The Animals’ frontman Eric Burdon would later opine: “I’ve been told by lots of people who know, and were around at the time, that that’s what stimulated Bob into going electric and becoming a rock star as opposed to a folk star. You might say we’re all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realised that that was the road that we wanted to take.”
Thus, Dylan blazed a trail that The Byrds soon followed him down and beefed up his mantra with a rocky riff and production. In 1990, these two differing versions would collide to glorious effect at a Roy Orbison Tribute Concert. The Byrds began with their classic anthem ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ before welcoming the pioneering troubadour who helped to launch their career onto the stage. Naturally, when Dylan and The Byrds were on stage together the fateful gods of folk would’ve caused a mutiny had they not performed ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. Gladly, Dylan and The Byrds gloriously obliged.