What does Mr. Tambourine Man mean?

Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man Meaning

Album cover for Mr. Tambourine Man album cover

Mr. Tambourine Man Lyrics

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.

Though I know that evenin's empire has...


    #1 top rated interpretation:
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    Jan 15th 2013 !⃝

    Quote from observation of 20 August 2006 (above):

    "Tambourine man is not only an old fashioned term for a drug dealer, but also what they call the man that leads the funeral procession in new orleans"

    - It's a vision of mortality. It's about death. The tambourine man who leads the funeral procession, in a place where death is ambiguously treated both as a moment of grief and a crossing into another world, is a keynote figure.

    It's a vision which would not be out of place in the consciousness of someone who may be under the influence of a drug (trust me on this ...), or someone who is simply subject to extreme emotions like grief, sorrow, etc, with no immediately obvious relief in sight. The tambourine man is a deliverer, possibly even a religious figure.

    The destination, significantly, is the sea - Freud's image of the womb and in more modern times a place for the collective mind of the dead - the sea of consciousness - completing the circle of life ("in my end is my beginning"- TS Elliot in East Coker (Four Quartets) quoting Mary Queen of Scots). The sea is forgiveness, absolution, death and rebirth.

    Poetry and song are capable of a prophetic dimension - not always attained - in which the author expresses an insight in a form that makes it transportable over time and distance. It is a phenomenon so ancient that it predates the written word, and it is a facility or a component of human consciousness to which words do not always do justice - hence our struggle to interpret these things. It is a rare moment when a light shines through cloud and illuminates a reality so clearly.


    #2 top rated interpretation:
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    Jul 15th 2012 !⃝

    The song is about intoxication: the means, not quite, important. It could be drugs, it could be love, and above all, it could be music. If taken literally, not going into unnecessary complexities, Dylan, tired and disappointed, longs to lose himself and reach a state of divine happiness, by the simple music of a tambourine man.


    #3 top rated interpretation:
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    Nov 9th 2019 !⃝

    It’s a song about dying. The singer is on his death bed having struggled with pain and illness. Reminiscing on life. The Tambourine Man is the angel of death come to take him away. There are fits of nostalgia, of wanting to be through the pain, of longing and also fear about taking a trip to the next place.

  4. Heartstrings
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    Sep 1st 2023 !⃝

    Maybe it could be Satan, Lucifer, the Devil. Having "tabrets", he is a "tambourine man" in Ezekiel 28:13

  5. anonymous
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    Aug 12th 2023 !⃝

    Good lyrics, like good literature, have many layers of meaning. I find them most interesting to revisit when I keep it broad, not narrow. Broadly speaking, I read these lyrics as being about the transitory nature of life, and how, ultimately, everything passes, including power, wealth, possessions, and, finally, our physical strength. And we are left with the vastness of space around us, including the stars and the desire to follow something or someone. There’s a loss, resignation, and even a sense of futility. (It’s like a modern day rendering of Ecclesiastes.). And when all passes away, we seek comfort and direction. In the song and in life, each chooses what that will be. The power of the song as with all great art is the universality of it. Whether you choose to make it about soldiers or drug addicts or any other soul is up to you; but these truths emerge, whoever and whatever you choose to make it about.

  6. anonymous
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    Feb 28th 2021 !⃝

    Bob Dylan is a bit of a trickster and many songs can be hard or downright impossible to know his interpretation of. However this is not the case with Tambourine Man as it's actually pretty straight forward and no, it's not about drugs.
    It's about dying and the crossover from this realm to the unknown.

    Tambourine Man is the personification of death.

  7. Psi1925
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    Oct 8th 2020 !⃝

    From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, drummers led the infantry to the battlefield (see wikipedia.org, Tambour Major). Since Dylan begins the first verse with "though I know that evenings empire has returned into sand, vanished from my hand ..." it is hard to believe that he did not have this role of drummers in mind.

    But who is the narrator in the song?

    Well, one of the nameless soldiers who went into battle with the tambourine man. This is now over (see beginning of the song), what remains is a partially destroyed world (the ancient empty streets to dead for dreaming) and the former soldier feels anything but good. His weariness amazes him, he is branded on his feet and after all, he has no one to meet. In this situation he remembers the tambourine man, in which he apparently trusts and also expects help, after all he has led him safely through the chaos of war. He turns to him by calling him with "Hey Mr. Tambourine man play a song for me ...".

    However, the horrific events on the battlefield left deep marks on the nameless soldier - he is traumatized. He is not able to perceive his normal environment, he is only fixated on the tambourine man who is physically no longer available (the war is over). Nevertheless, as in the warlike past, this should solve all his problems. At least that's how he remembers it. An effective means of survival was a retreat in time, a kind of coordinated escape. In the next 3 stanzas we are confronted with various types of escape.

    For this purpose, a trip on the whirling magic ship is addressed in the 2nd stanza (take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship). Quasi as an emergency measure. Because our soldier still suffers massively from physical and mental problems. All his senses have been stripped, his hands can't feel to grip and his toes are to numb to step (they need the boot heels for wandering). He promises the tambourine to go anywhere (I'm ready to go anyhow) and to submit to it (I'd promise to go under it).

    The third stanza brings an approach to trauma coping. The nameless soldier processes his war experiences in a modified form. He projects his modified memories of what happened onto the firmament. There he thinks he can hear a crazy laugh which can be heard around the sun. However, this does not represent a danger (it's not aimed at anyone), it just slipped out on the run. It is also easier to escape because there are no fences in the sky that could make the whole thing more difficult. Even the fragmentary rhymes to be heard, matching the beat of the drum, come only from a ragged clown chasing a shadow. So a bizarre but less dangerous scenario than it was in the warlike reality.

    However, our soldier still has a long way to go. This can be seen in the fourth stanza where he is toying with the ultimate way of escape, the disappearance. For this, too, he sees the Tambourine man as the ideal protagonist. In contrast to verse 2, this time it is not a matter of a physical escape, only a change of location would not change anything in his worries and mental well-being. Since a trauma is primarily anchored in the head, the starting point for its disappearance should be found there (take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind). Ultimately, what matters to him is to escape the stranglehold of these crazy worries (the twisted reach of crazy sorrow). And, if that (this time) is not yet possible, at least forget his memories and fate until tomorrow (let me forget about today until tomorrow).

  8. anonymous
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    Sep 5th 2020 !⃝

    Well, the "Drug dealer" interpretation was featured in the movie "Dangerous Minds." But I find that too simplistic. There is too much complexity here for that.

    Many people have called Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" the greatest song; but I disagree. I would award that to this song. But I have discovered that you have to be wired on way too much caffeine to appreciate it fully. ("I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.")

    Dylan strikes me as one of those people whose soul never fully inhabited his body; who lives with one foot in this world and one in the next. (I should know; I'm like that, too.) This is the feelings of a soul who wanders the earth like a ghost, although still living in a physical body ("Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering"). A soul who never finds a place to belong ("I'm ready to go anywhere"), because this world is too banal and materialistic, and longs to fly away to the Great Beyond whence it came ("laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun... escaping on the run"), and where there are no more tears ("far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow"). Like in Yeats' poem, the world's more full of weeping than he will understand.

    How many Christian hymns are there about death as a joyful release? This song takes those same feelings out of the formulaic language of religion.

  9. anonymous
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    Jul 11th 2020 !⃝

    If the song were ONLY about drugs it would not be very good poetry. Most of the interpretations talk about MANY different kinds of escape. Inconsistencies in interpretations turn it into a kind of dreamscape – one kind of escape. It is about escape into drugs, music, art and dance obviously, but also about defiance of and escape from tradition (the “frightened trees” like older generations afraid of change sitting sternly in their gothic cathedrals), escape from the circus of humanity (perhaps a kind of “orderly” circus) or into a different kind of circus (entertainment), defiance of and escape from looming death (perhaps escape from being drafted) into life, or from life into death, or into religion (Mr. Tambourine Man as Jesus or as priest) or alternative religions or from failed religion (“frozen leaves” “I have no one to meet” (Jesus didn’t come), “the ancient empty street’s too dead for [religious] dreaming”) altogether, from drudgery into an impossible absolute liberty (“no fences,” “one hand waving free” (holding high the torch of liberty), escape from modernity, from fate, harsh practical necessity and responsibility, escape from history, from today, from loneliness (“no one to meet”), from the whims of fortune into sleep and dreams, from monotony or into a different monotony, from the Apollonian into the Dionysian; escape from craziness or into a different kind of craziness, from a journey with no meaningful end (“no place to go”) into the journey itself; escape from earth (the “swirling ship” on its journey through space and time).
    The new world has been explored and fenced in, so now we turn to the skies. Some escape by becoming “useless” star gazing philosophers (Socrates) or mythologists (Greek myth). Perhaps it is the “death drive” (Freud) or something else luring us off the land, away from civilization and its discontents, back to our origins in the womb of the unexplored ocean or of the subconscious, or our inner child refusing to grow up and be repressed -- calling us back to naiveté and freshness, to where creativity, natural authenticity and spontaneity can flourish. Perhaps it is a call to follow one’s bliss or to get lost on one’s own untraveled path to escape from the slavery of money or vanity, so that in the end we can at least claim to have, in some sense, lived deeply? We try to hold high the ideal of freedom (escape into it) while maintaining a grip on sanity, justice, practical reality, reason, law and order. He tries to keep his art just on the verge of chaos without falling into it. Maybe it is a plea for people to understand the protests (“one hand waiving free”), draft dodging, dropping out, going A-wall, anti-materialism, anti-capitalism and general rebellion (kinds of escape and defiance). Most of that happened after the song was written, but the interpretation still seems to work.
    We are all dying but still trying to keep a grip – to be able to at least dance in our own funeral parades. The earth, humanity, history (“empires”), sky-scrapers too are dancing and spinning their way to eventual destruction. Today (the “evening” of history) we are more conscious of this emptiness yet are still alive and must keep moving – doing something – anything to at least be distracted. Some turn away from the circus of ephemeral human accomplishments and vanity (“vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme”) to be awed instead by the diamonds in the eternal heavens. We may turn to poetry, music or theater (“reels of rhyme”), praying to the gods or muses (Mr. Tambourine Man) trying desperately to point in some vague direction of meaning or transcendence (“shadow”), while the universe or the gods only muse at our clumsiness and insignificance. The ancient Greeks and shamans looked to the stars and rhythms of time on earth and in the heavens (“reels” (orbits, revolving)) for inspiration (perhaps escape). Can we still do that? Or is that all dead? We still seem to try, or at least we go through the motions. (“I’m branded on my feet”)
    One also imagines a day at the amusement park (perhaps Coney Island years ago) – another kind of escape. If “God is dead” (Nietzsche) then is that the kind of thing that is replacing God? Is the drug dealer or band leader the new priest leading the funeral procession? Perhaps life now is just one great trip on the ride called “Earth.” We want to just sleep and dream like our religious parents or ancestors did, but we are no longer able. (“Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.”) Perhaps today we know too much, and the older we and the earth get, the more we know and the more bored and disappointed we become. Like the condemned Sisyphus, we have to distract ourselves the best we can.

  10. Angelboo
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    Oct 19th 2018 !⃝

    I like that this song could have a different meaning to everyone. But instead of aruging over what YOU think the song means have any one ever thought the song could mean multiple things? It could mean everything you guys mentioned.

  11. classicalpete
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    Aug 30th 2018 !⃝

    I've always thought there's an element of Dionysiac ecstasy in the song. The "magic swirling ship" conjures the image of Dionysus, who was a great wanderer, in the boat on Exekias' great kylix in Munich, and the tambourine was used by the maenads who accompanied the god. Only one strand in this wonderful, enigmatic song, of course, which has haunted me for fifty years.

  12. anonymous
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    Apr 20th 2018 !⃝

    For God's sake who cares. Drugs/no drugs, escape/no escape, religion/no religion etc, to boring etc. The 'wordly' (yes, that's right) lyrics are truly beautiful, fascinating, metaphysical, and above all masterfully poetic, so just let your imagination take you wherever it takes you. But all the while suck into your consciuosness this product of a poetic mind and wordsmith that has, and probably will never have, a contemporary peer.

    If this aura doesn't do it for you, just switch off and take your collective pedestrianism elsewhere.

  13. anonymous
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    Oct 23rd 2016 !⃝

    One of BOB DYLAN'S greatest songs, for letting your imagination run high and wild, with a good healthy conscience to think, while searching on your journey. All in the call for adventure to escape the reality of wandering the dirty streets for the wide open spaces and country field roads,or vice versa to find some meaning in life by going out and experience it. On the other hand, to my understanding. The Protagonist or the singer of this song, sympathetically brings to light ''the Mythological Wandering Jew'' that is playing to Mr.Tambourine in the many colors disguised frame of mind with the unfortunate ''Sacrotized soul'' that ''was to walk the earth until the second coming of ''The Saviour''. Wherefore the Protagonist is assimilating this ancient presence to fuse upon the new age Pied Piper that he himself is ''playing and following'' to lead the youth on The Dionysian Path where spirited souls were in the unity of love and freedom for ''spiritual transcendence'' and redemtion that was swirling around and in the air of the 60's Which in all, danced away the youth of the flower children occasionally in a frenzy ecstasy of joy for love and peace that wanted to follow Him[God] home. Or those who have been waiting for tomorrow on God's homecoming revelation.

  14. anonymous
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    Sep 19th 2016 !⃝

    Drugs plain and simple. It was the 60s when they had lsd marijuana and pcp and other drugs that were out there.

  15. anonymous
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    Sep 18th 2016 !⃝

    I feel the song is about a man who is struggling with the withdrawal of drugs, which has caused him to itch for a hit. So he asks a drug dealer by the name of 'Mr Tambourine man'to give him a douse for the night, to make him feel better.

  16. anonymous
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    Dec 29th 2012 !⃝

    I had a mean ass teacher in high school who called herself an old hippie and she played music that could have cost her her job, she threatened us not to tell anyone or she would be the bitch we all think she is. She told us to listen to Tamborine Man and what it was about, even the class stoners didn't know, she said it was obvious The Tamborine Man was his drug dealer...I didn't even know what weed was back then, now duh!

  17. justin.eiynck
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    Dec 3rd 2012 !⃝

    im sorry but its about the "dope man" dope being heroin. if you have ever been a heroin user this song speaks volumes to you. dylan may not have been a smackhead and not every song is about drugs but dylan wrote this song when and where junk was king. this song is about copping some heroin from the dope man early in the dopesick morning imo.

  18. anonymous
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    Aug 27th 2012 !⃝

    Bob has stated that this song isn't about drugs and the muse concept and the Bruce Langhorne concept interests me, but the dead give away line in this song is "MAGIC SWIRLING SHIP" and what do the bells on a tambourine look like? Flying saucer ring a bell?

    The narrator desires to go on a trip with mr tambourine man (song was written before Dylan dropped acid). If you see the magic swirling ship fly across the sun, it's not aimed at anyone (not a missile) it's escaping on the run for the sky there are no fences facing (leaving the planet). The narrator is ready to go anywhere.

    Also consider that THE BYRDS did a PARODY on this song called HEY MR SPACE MAN--"hey mr spaceman won't you please take me along, i won't do anything wrong, hey mr spaceman, won't you please take me along for a ride?"

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