Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" can lay claim to being the song, through the Byrds' recording, that gave birth to the mid-'60s musical style called "folk-rock." Dylan, who had become famous in 1963 for his socially conscious songs like "Blowin' in the Wind," by mid-1964 had begun to write densely poetic lyrics with unusual imagery that either ignored politics or rejected it. This material came to the fore on his album Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in August 1964, with songs such as "My Back Pages" and "Chimes of Freedom," but as early as the Newport Folk Festival in July Dylan was singing "Mr. Tambourine Man," another good example of his new style. In the song's chorus, the narrator asks the title character to play a song for him. The time seems to be early morning following a night when the narrator has not slept. Still unable to sleep, though amazed by his weariness, he is available and open to Mr. Tambourine Man's song, and says he will follow him. In the course of four verses studded with internal rhymes, he expounds on this situation, his meaning often heavily embroidered with imagery, though the desire to be freed by the tambourine man's song remains clear.
Such a song was and remains open to various interpretations. Was Dylan reflecting the desire he felt from his own audience, so that he, in effect, was the tambourine man? To what extent did such apparent predecessors as the Pied Piper of Hamlin and Jesus Christ figure into the song? In the wake of the proliferation of drugs in the 1960s, many people interpreted "Mr. Tambourine Man" as referring to drugs. Was the tambourine man a dealer and the narrator's request that he "take me on a trip" a desire to sample his wares?
Bob Dylan finally recorded "Mr. Tambourine Man" in New York on January 15, 1965, during sessions for his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. The Dylan recording featured his acoustic guitar as accompaniment, with a subdued electric guitar line blending in. The album was released March 22, 1965, reached the Top Ten, and went gold. But the most prominent version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was the one recorded by the Byrds in Los Angeles five days after Dylan recorded his. This was the group's first session for Columbia Records, also Dylan's label, and they cut the song with a prominent 12-string electric guitar riff and a rock accompaniment (with a beating tambourine, naturally), using only one of the original four verses in a track that ran less than half the length of the five-and-a-half-minute original. Released in April 1965, the Byrds' record became a massive hit, topping the charts in June. With that, it seemed half the recording acts in L.A. either raided the Dylan repertoire for material (Cher's "All I Really Want to Do," the Turtles' "It Ain't Me Babe") or wrote and recorded material that sounded like it (Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe," Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction"). Of course, Dylan himself had already broken into the Top 40 with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and soon would score the biggest hit single of his career as a recording artist with "Like a Rolling Stone."
Not surprisingly, "Mr. Tambourine Man" quickly earned a flurry of cover versions by likely interpreters such as Judy Collins and the Brothers Four and unlikely ones such as the Four Seasons and the Lettermen. Over time, the prominence of the Byrds' hit has tended to overshadow other recordings, though the song remains one of Bob Dylan's best-known compositions, with his version being chosen for inclusion on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits in 1967 and the Biograph box set in 1985.