The wide range of mystical materials which have inspired Bob Dylan songs have long caused hysteria, and often they have been wrongly attributed, such as the long misconstrued classic, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.
At the time, fans believed that the song was an ode to drugs purely because of the lyric, “And take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind”. However, the singer would later dispel this myth and say that people were looking too deeply into the line, trying to assert their own artistic drive to a piece of work that wasn’t theirs.
He explained in the liner notes for 1985’s Biograph, “Drugs never played a part in that song… ‘disappearing through the smoke rings in my mind,’ that’s not drugs; drugs were never that big a thing with me. I could take ’em or leave ’em, never hung me up.”
In truth, the true inspiration for the track was the late Bruce Langhorne, a folk guitarist who was a frequent collaborator of Dylan’s during the early years of his career.
The first time the two worked together for Dylan’s first-ever single, ‘Mixed Up Confusion’, and the B-side, ‘Corrina Corrina’. Later on, Langhorne’s role would become more substantial during the recording of Bringing It All Back Home.
On the album, he provided lead guitar to ‘Outlaw Blues’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. He also assisted Dylan in the creation of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, and credited for forging the countermelody for the track. However, at the time, Langhorne was blissfully unaware that he was ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.
It took two decades before Dylan revealed Langhorne was the muse behind the song. In the liner notes for Biograph, he wrote, “‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ I think, was inspired by Bruce Langhorne. Bruce was playing guitar with me on a bunch of the early records. On one session, [producer] Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine.
“It was like, really big. It was as big as a wagon-wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind. He was one of those characters … he was like that. I don’t know if I’ve ever told him that.”
Additionally, in his autobiography, Chronicles Volume One, he glowingly remarked, “If you had Bruce playing with you, that’s all you would need to do just about anything.”
Dylan and Langhorne would go on separate paths following Bringing It All Back Home before reuniting in 1973 when he played on the soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Outside of Langhorne’s work with Dylan, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ had a fruitful career scoring films, including Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand. In 1992, he undertook a strange career diversion when he launched the highly successful hot sauce company Brother Bru-Bru’s African Hot Sauce.
Sadly in 2006, Langhorne suffered a stroke and could no longer play the guitar. However, in the face of diversity, he took up the piano for his only solo album, 2011’s Tambourine Man. He passed away in 2017, aged 78.