Who was Mr. Tambourine Man?


Drama followed Bruce Langhorne all his life. After leaving Tallahassee as a child, he moved with his librarian mother, Dorothy, to Harlem and began learning the violin. His days as a prodigy ended at the age of 12, when he blew off the tips of two fingers and his right thumb after clinging on too long to a homemade firework called a cherry bomb. “At least I won’t have to play the violin anymore,” he told his weeping mother.

Despite later inspiring the Mr. Tambourine Man of Dylan’s song, the boy who had grown up loving the music of Louis Jordan took up the guitar and, like Django Reinhardt, found a way around his disability. Though he could not strum, the young Langhorne became an accomplished finger-picking player and said, “I got to be a very good accompanist because I was really forced to listen.”

After working as a street performer and in New York folk clubs, word of Langhorne’s talent got around and he played a session with Dylan in October 1962, showcasing his stunning guitar on “Corrina, Corrina” for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. His potent electric guitar lines also light up songs such as Bringing It All Back Home’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm.” Dylan said: “If you had Bruce playing with you, that’s all you would need to do just about anything.”

Langhorne played with lots of other leading musicians, including Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, but thought his finest work was with Dylan. “The connection I had with Bobby was telepathic,” he said.

Dylan was supposedly inspired to write “Mr. Tambourine Man,” on which Langhorne also plays, after seeing him arrive for a recording session holding a giant Turkish frame drum with jingle-jangling bells attached to its edges. It looked like a tambourine the size of an extra-large pizza.

In the liner notes to his Biograph box set, Dylan said, “‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was inspired by Bruce Langhorne. Bruce was playing guitar with me on a bunch of the early records. 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. I don’t know if I’ve ever told him that.”