The Inspiration For Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’

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Bruce Langhorne (far left) with Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan and Bill Lee, 1961

He was never an A-list artist but, rather, one of those names that just seemed to pop up everywhere. He was the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which became a #1 hit for The Byrds, and played guitar on several tracks on Dylan’s 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album. His credit could also be found on recordings by other singer-songwriters and folk-rockers such as Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Richie Havens, Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Bruce Langhorne died April 14, 2017, at his home in Venice, Calif., of kidney failure. Langhorne had reportedly been in hospice care for some time. He suffered a stroke in 2006 that caused him to stop playing guitar and also had diabetes.

Langhorne was born in 1938 in Tallahassee (the exact date is unknown) and moved to Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem at age four with his mother. Although he lost two-and-a-half fingers while playing with a homemade rocket, he took up guitar and in the early ’60s became involved in the budding folk music scene, first in Provincetown, Mass., and then Greenwich Village, where he got work as a session musician. In addition to the artists cited above, his guitar playing contributed to recordings by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Carolyn Hester, Eric Andersen, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Odetta, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Harry Belafonte, John Sebastian and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, as well as jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and African drummer Babatunde Olatunji.

Bruce Langhorne in the ’60s

“If you had Bruce playing with you, that’s all you would need to do just about anything,” Bob Dylan once said of Langhorne in a widely circulated quote. Langhorne played guitar on the track “Corrina, Corrina,” on Dylan’s 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and on the outtake “Mixed-Up Confusion,” which was eventually released on Dylan’s Biograph boxed set. Two years later he was on most of Bringing It All Back Home, contributing electric and acoustic guitar to tracks such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Maggie’s Farm.” He also appeared with Dylan on TV’s The Les Crane Show.

Watch the Byrds perform “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the song inspired by Langhorne

Related: The Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man” goes to #1

Langhorne often played a large Turkish frame drum (see photo below), leading to Dylan’s classic composition.

Langhorne in his later years

In the Biograph liner notes, Dylan is quoted as saying, “’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.”

Langhorne also played on Dylan’s 1973 soundtrack to the film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. He also created music for films such as the Peter Fonda Western The Hired Hand (1971), Outlaw Blues (1973), Stay Hungry (1976), Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad (1976) and Melvin and Howard (1980).

Langhorne was the subject of a various artists tribute album, released in February as a benefit for him, called The Hired Hands.

“Just occasionally you come across these geniuses. Bruce Langhorne was one; he responds instinctually to the visual image. Bruce has done some of the most beautiful scoring I have ever been involved with, or ever known,” director Demme once said.

In his later years, Langhorne founded a hot sauce company, Brother Bru-Bru’s African Hot Sauce.

Watch the classic video of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with Langhorne on guitar

Jeff Tamarkin

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  1. Mike L
    #1 Mike L 17 April, 2017, 01:43

    It’s literally like every week some great musician is passing away. And with cats gettin older it’s probably gonna be like this from here on out sadly.

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