Mr Tambourine Man

(L-R) Bruce Langhorne, Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan and Bill Lee (Spike’s father), in 1961, via PremierGuitar.com

If I’m asked what my eight desert island discs would be – and to date I have to admit the question has yet to be asked – then six of the choices are always changing, but two remain fixed. One is Booker T and the MGs’ ‘Time is Tight’ (which I’m going to make the subject of a post one day). The other is ‘Corinna Corinna‘ by Bob Dylan. And one of the chief reasons I so delight in that song, an old number which Dylan turned into his own with some help from the Robert Johnson song ‘Stones in my Passway’, is its backing track – that easy drumbeat, pin-sharp bass, and over the rhythm guitar a tremolo guitar accompaniment of perfectly judged sweetness.

That guitar accompaniment was provided by Bruce Langhorne, one of the finest of all session musicians, who died on April 14th. Langhorne was a regular in the Greenwich village folk scene of the early 60s, providing melodic accompaniments to all the great names from that time – Odetta, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richard and Mimi Farina, Peter Paul and Mary, and of course Bob Dylan. He can be heard first on Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album (1963), playing on ‘Corinna Corinna’, but it his work on Bringing it All Back Home (1965) that will fast-track him into heaven. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, a song inspired by Langhorne himself, who had a large Turkish drum that was translated in Dylan’s mind into a tambourine, features a guitar counter-melody that makes you shiver. It counterpoints not just the melody but the words, the density of the images offset by a seemingly simple guitar line of such delicacy, a sound like tip-toeing through rain.

Langhorne last played with Dylan for the soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) (his earlier score of ghostly Americana for Peter Fonda’s 1971 film The Hired Hand is quite superb). He then gave up on music to farm macadamia nuts in Hawaii, who can say why. His story was an extraordinary one – a child violin prodigy, who lost part of some fingers in a homemade bomb explosion, switched to guitar at seventeen and became a genius accompanist with with basically two-and-a-half fingers. The limitation must in some way have helped his fluidity of line, aided by a deep affinity felt with those with whom he was playing, Dylan especially. Guitarist Bill Frisell says of Langhorne’s playing:

I used to listen to early Bob Dylan records he was on when I was a kid, lying on the floor with the speakers next to my head, playing them over and over. I just heard him as part of the total sound. Years later I realized his playing was this line between accompanying and having a conversation, being spontaneous and completely integrated into the music from the inside out, playing a part but not a part, unpredictable. When I heard all that later, I realized that was the way I have been trying to play my whole life.

Indeed, it’s a conversation between singer and musician, reading their thoughts and responding in kind. You sense the reliability, the sensibility, the modesty, and the grace.

Much of the music he recorded was of its time and is now the preserve of the specialist, but his work with Dylan took him higher. Those gentle lines in ‘Corrina Corrina’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ will keep him immortal.

Bruce Langhorne with the ‘tambourine’ drum, from brucelanghorne.com

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2 thoughts on “Mr Tambourine Man

    1. A Ry Cooder score before Ry Cooder had begun to think of them. Long time since I’ve seen the film, but will be seeking it out again.

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