Many people assume that songs from the 1960s refer to drugs, and Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man is no exception. The common interpretation of Mr. Tambourine Man is that Dylan refers to visions seen during a drug high. The title supposedly refers to the dealer, while verses such as “lose their grip” and “laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun” lend credence to this claim.
This paper argues that there is an alternate and more plausible explication for this lyrical poem. Drug references are available for those who look, but there are no such references in the chorus or the third verses. Instead, this paper argues that the “Mr. Tambourine Man” referred to in the poem is an inspirational figure, and the poet is a follower who struggles—sometimes in vain—to keep up.
The lyrical poem begins in the chorus, where the speaker shares his present position. In the first verse, Dylan describes how his “evening’s empire has returned into sand.” He further states that this sand has vanished, perhaps slipped through his fingers. The evening’s empire is a realm of sleep and dreams, a realm that the poet wants to reach. However, later on, he states that he stands blind and weary, but still “not sleeping.”
Dylan thus sets the stage for a poet who is emotionally empty, devoid of any vision or inspiration. He finds dreaming impossible, and he is trapped and alone on a “dead” street. Without the possibility of dreaming, there is also no chance of new visions or new directions. His old values and visions have gone, drained away like slipping sand. He cries out for the inspiration that “Mr. Tambourine Man” could give. The first verses of the poem thus tell of an artist, seeking inspiration for a new vision, a new poem, a new song.
Interestingly, Dylan shifts the point of view from the poet to that of the Tambourine Man himself. The Tambourine Man, according to the author, sees the poet ...