It was the spring of 1964 and Dylan had been on a cross country road trip with a few friends, seeing America and writing songs, including one that would become his enduring hit “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Critics would speculate that the song was inspired by the cajun and jazz music of the Mardi Gras krewes that Dylan would have undoubtedly heard in NOLA.
A year and a half later after Dylan recorded it, the genre of Folk Rock was born when The Byrds exploded at the top of the US and UK pop charts with their cover of Dylan’s selfsame “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Music historians contend that The Byrd’s version impacted music for decades, including work by The Beatles, The Animals, Tom Petty, The Smiths, Fleetwood Mac, the Black Keys,
and that damn-him-for-being-good Harry Styles. The song has literally shaped music history.
What Instrument Turns Anyone Into a Musician?
When I began researching the tambourine, my goal was to find the definitive roots of this amazing instrument. It was sparked by a typically random classroom tangent in my IB theatre class.
Somebody was musing about how some instruments take years of practice to sound good (violin, accordion) while others make a decent sound even when played by someone who sucks at music (triangle, bongo). Another kid brought up the tambourine and said it was actually “like, an ancient instrument.” She added that there was a Bible story about a prophet who played the tambourine.
I have always loved the tambourine — I love it in everything from Motown to rock to gospel to folk — I even like synth tam. It’s the secret sauce that brings in the soul, taking songs to new emotional levels. I love that anyone can play it. And, I loved the idea that it had ancient roots. I wanted to know more.
I began to realize something remarkable: the tambourine is f*cking everywhere. In the history of the world, it’s as common as religion and prostitution.
Shake Your Moneymaker: A Brief History of the Tam
Nefertari, wife of Ramesses IIKnown by dozens of names, the tambourine cannot be claimed by any one culture. Pharaoh Queen Nefartari can be seen shimmying with a tambourine-like sistrum in hieroglyphics dating from at least 1250 BCE. The tambourine also appears multiple times in the Bible, played by angels and mortals — and, yes, in the hands of prophet Miriam as she dances it up in the book of Exodus. The ancient Greeks used the tambourine to celebrate and honor the gods. The ancient Chinese Eastern Zhou dynasty had tambourine players, dating tambourine origins in East Asia to more than 2000 years ago.
Since its invention, the tambourine has spread around the world. It‘s been featured in music from cultures in Azerbaijan to Argentina, from the Islamic Javanese of Indonesia to the Maori of New Zealand, from African American slaves to Russian gypsies. An instrument of celebration and misery, of community and loneliness, the tambourine belongs to the globe.
It’s as if the tambourine was a musical tool that demanded to be invented.
Great Design Releases the Imagination
Any great tool — the wheel, the knife, the lever — reveals its greatness in its capacity to channel curiosity and new ideas. A great tool is useful to everyone because it meets you exactly at your proficiency level, even if at first you suck at using it. It becomes more useful as you learn to use it.
The tambourine is a brilliant example of this.
A tambourine demands you pick it up and shake it. Put it in front of a three year old and she will not just make sounds. She will explore sounds. This is because a great tool teaches you about yourself and the world.
My research of this jangly drum with cymbals clarified some things I’ve been trying to put into words for years. What has made the tambourine so universal — and so playable — reveals the essential elements of great tool design. I’ve made a short list of design fundamentals that I’ve learned from the tam. Maybe it will be useful to you.
a great tool teaches you about yourself and the world.
I call it “The Tambourine Principle.”
- Need no instructions. They teach the user how to use them through play and use.
- Develop the user’s skill by being adaptable to his/her will and use.
- Reward curiosity with delight, satisfaction, and/or understanding.
- Grow in value as the user’s imagination grows, the more the tool is used.
Tools like the tambourine give flight to one’s imagination. They are powered by the user’s capacity to try new ideas. These tools (or toys or instruments — call them what you like) don’t just accomplish a job that the user desires.
A great tool changes the person who uses it. Put another way: the greatest tools shape the human mind, not the other way around.
It’s also why the internet is probably the greatest tool ever invented. Yet.
And, as for Dylan
I don’t know if you buy it, but here’s what I think: “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a tribute to the imaginative power released by a beautifully designed tool.