Mr. Tambourine Man: Enchanting Song or Warning of the Return of the Old Ones? A Textual Analysis

It is a little-known fact that Bob Dylan is a huge devotee of the prophetic works of the author H.P. Lovecraft. Knowledge of this esoteric trivia* led me to a surprising conclusion: Mr. Tambourine Man is not a song memorializing a long-dead musician, but rather a warning of the impending apocalyptic rise of the Old One Cthulhu. Before you say, Dan, clearly you have spent too much time reading fragments of the Necronomicon while avoiding memorizing the asymptotic variances of censored regression models**, let me explain using a close textual analysis of some key lyrics.

A caveat: A full analysis would require a deeper reading of Lovecraft’s work, as well as later followers, to be able to capture the subtleties of Dylan’s allegories. For example, it is unclear at several points if Mr. Tambourine Man is a cultist attempting to orchestrate Cthulhu’s return or merely a prophet, driven mad by visions of the Elder God and attempting to warn us through allegory. Or, perhaps most radically, is the Tambourine Man another name for the dreaded Cthulhu himself? I favor the middle interpretation, but welcome alternative interpretations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To the text!

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.

Dylan’s tune is notable for beginning with the chorus, rather than the verse. This signals the listener to note how the chorus serves as a chorus, that is, a ritualized, repeated invocation. This reminds the alert listener of the Black Chorus and their chant, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” The closest English translation is, of course, “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” (cf. “Call of Cthulhu”, Chapter II). Adding weight to this interpretation, the chorus appears to be sung by a cult member (“…I’ll come followin’ you”), and one who is waiting for the appropriate moment, e.g. the stars aligning (“In the jingle jangle morning…”).

Having primed us to look for further explanations of the cult, Dylan goes on to make a most explicit reference to Cthulhu and his predicament:

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.

In light of the first verse, the first and last lines become obvious: “Evenin’s empire” is the ancient empire of the Old Ones, which has “returned into sand” and is now buried beneath the sea. The “ancient empty street’s” of R’yleh are “too dead for dreaming”, which is, paradoxically, precisely what C’thulhu is doing (“…dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”) The middle part of the verse may be a reference to Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” more explicitly, or another story telling of an encounter between a weary traveler, lost at sea, struck paralyzed with awe upon seeing the massive gates of R’yleh. The blindness may be metaphorical or physical, the text is ambiguous.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship,
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin’.
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.

The first line continues the reference to the fateful voyage of Gustaf Johansen, while the rest of the verse refers to the narrator’s own experiences with Cthulhu and his minions. Having been exposed (“My senses have been stripped..”), the narrator is now ready to follow Mr. Tambourine Man – but to what end? To bring about the return of Cthulhu? Or to prevent it, and thus prolong humanity’s existence?

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun,
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’.
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind,
I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
Seein’ that he’s chasing.

The madness of those who have seen Cthulhu’s visage is not directed at any Earthly entity (“It’s not aimed at anyone…”). The narrator then explains the purpose of the Tambourine Man, who is chasing a shadow (the same shadow that the narrator, and the presumptive audience, has seen, the shadow cast by the Elder Gods on the world of the living). But why does he chase this shadow? To resurrect it, or to keep it in its prison?

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Finally, the narrator hopes for a peaceful slumber. Driven mad by visions (“Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves/ The haunted frightened trees…”), no longer in full possession of his faculty after his encounter with Cthulhu (“With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves”) the narrator hopes only to “forget about today until tomorrow”. This verse is sung in a carefree style, as if the narrator were speaking of an innocent desire to forget his worries, sing and dance to the tune of a carefree wandered. As this analysis has shown, nothing could be further from the truth. The narrator is living a life of madness punctuated by intermittent moments of clarity. Only the peace of death, or giving in to the mindless ravings that often overtake him, will allow him to be free of his chtonic burdens.

Thoughts?

* It is likely that this fact’s obscurity is related to me having just made it up.
** A true but irrelevant statement.

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9 Comments

  1. Dave

     /  February 10, 2010

    I stumbled across this article of your in a search for scholarly articles on Mr. Tambourine Man, which happens to be my very favorite Dylan piece.

    I read the first few sentences without checking the asterisked points or the links and my mouth dropped. Until I scrolled to the bottom, I was befuddled, to say the least. Then, I saw “It is likely…” and laughed my head off.

    This is outstanding! Hilariously funny! Well done–you won triple brownie points with me for using Mr. T Man.

  2. J.B.Lee

     /  May 22, 2011

    This is a beautiful thing, but don’t think you were there first; back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, I did a similar analysis of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” finding it chockfull, not just of Lovecraftisms, but of every flavour of Cthulhu Mythos. “Hello, darkness, my old friend — I’ve come to talk to you again.” Yeah, you bet. Ia!

    • Please post that analysis of “The Sound of Silence” – much needed. If it’s gone can you reconstruct it?

  3. Billy

     /  September 20, 2011

    can i just say tht unless this is a joke, which in which case isn;t clear, this is complete and utter bull shit. mr tambourine man is a poetic piece indeed but with no clear meaning or message GET THAT INTO YOUR HEAD. it is a description of the waking dream state if anything, in that Dylan was HIGH. believe it or not. but tht takes nothing away from it, but please, stop posting this bullshit, and let Dylan’s work stay in the void of the unknown and beautiful rather than trying to literalise and destroy his work. cheers.

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