First, here is the song:

The Main Meaning Of This Song

This song is about escapism of drugs. It portrays the escapism of drugs in one of the most beautiful ways in all of poetry, songwriting, and literature. But near the end of the song, there is a sudden change with the following lyric:

And take me disappearing 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

Notice the “twisted reach of crazy sorrow” which is the answer to the thin protection offered by escapism of drugs. Drug use doesn’t ensure safety from the sorrow we hide from. In my opinion, this is the core idea of the song. And if I can add to this, a conclusion that can be made is that we must keep looking for a better solution to our sorrow than the escapism of drugs – if a solution is possible.

Who Is The Tambourine Man?

Bob Dylan explained that the “Tambourine Man” was a man who at times played guitar for him. His name was Bruce Langhorne. Dylan had a recollection of this guitarist once holding a big tambourine. I don’t know much more about this tambourine man.

My own interpretation of this tambourine man is the trance his music put on the protagonist of the song, further amplifying his trip and visions, helping him drift away on his dreamy trip.

Song Lyrics And In-line Analysis

The song starts with the catchy-sounding chorus. It sounds more fun. But lyrically, this is not as strong as the verses. If you are new to the terminology of chorus and verse, in short, the chorus is the catchy and memorable part of the song you can often sing along to, and repeats a few times.  The verse is where the story of the song happens.
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 following you.

This chorus sounds fun. But it’s not great poetry and a little confusing as to what’s being discussed here. The lyrical magic starts in the first verse:

Though I know that evening'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.
Let’s unpack that. The first line takes us into a different world with “…evening’s empire that returned into sand.” How mythical, imaginative, and dreamy! But that’s only the start. The next line takes us into a different world with “Vanished from my hand.” We just went from a forgotten empire to something on the palm of a hand.
The rest of the verse straddles the line between ambiguity, storytelling, and suspense. It eventually references the ancient empire as though the protagonist is in that empire. After that, we get the chorus again.
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 following you.
This is a repeat so let’s get right into the next verse:
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling 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 wandering
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.
Let’s unpack this verse. Now we’re on a “magic swirling ship” in what seems to be another world altogether. This is a good time to mention that this song is partially about doing drugs. Hence the next lines referencing hands that can’t grip and senses that have been stripped, and hands that can’t move still an enthusiastic mental outlook all things considered.
I love the way this line ends: “Cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it.” Isn’t it amazing when life gives you a chance to get cast under a magic spell?
After this, we get the fun-sounding chorus again:
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 following you.
Verse three is next:
Though you might hear laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone
It's just escaping on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facing
And if you hear vague traces of skipping 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 seeing that he's chasing.
What in the world is “…spinning wildly across the Sun?” Bob Dylan is inventing worlds, situations, and language. I hardly understand what it means, but I love where this is taking me as the listener of the song. I also want to swing and spin across the Sun. The rest of the verse is almost beyond analysis. It has to be imagined.
“For the sky there are no fences facing” can still be the flying person who is on a drug trip. But what a special trip. In the middle of the verse we meet this mysterious tambourine man, but he turns out to be unimportant after all. “It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.”
And we meet him in the chorus again:
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 following you.
Let’s get right into the last verse:
And take me disappearing 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.

We are continuing with this wonderful trip with “the smoke rings of my mind” and “foggy with the ruins of time.” I am not into drug trips, but even so, the way it’s described is magical and so enchanting.

Talking about enchanting, “the haunted frightened trees” – I don’t know what that is, but I love it.
Then, after seemingly different earthly places like beaches and forests, we are hit with something we didn’t see coming: “Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.” Are we referencing the escapism of drugs? And why does the protagonist have crazy sorrow? Is it because he is just a tambourine man who is unimportant and has no further meaning to his life? That’s just a guess so far.
We’ve all felt the “crazy sorrow” with it’s “twisted” and far reach. This line makes this song so relatable. But this protagonist decided to “forget about today until tomorrow” and get taken by his trip – all with beautiful and enchanting imagery which takes us into the last chorus and the end of the song. The last verse turns this into one of the most realistic songs and songs about living life and making the best of it.
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 following you.

The Takeaways

This song is beautiful because this writing is immensely difficult to write and comes across as effortless and natural.  There isn’t a single metaphor, but a constant bombardment and parade of beautiful imagery that doesn’t necessarily represent anything else like a metaphor usually does, but is just great within itself.
For a comparison, here is a post with analysis of great songs with metaphors and other songs with meaningful lyrics and deep songs with meaning.
To me, this song stands in history of music as having best song lyrics. If you truly listen to this song and take them in, they will enchant you and stop you in your tracks.
Songs With Metaphors
Photo taken from Pixabay