[EDITOR’S NOTE: Bruce Langhorne died on April 14, 2017 at his home in Venice, California. He was 78.]
By Kenny Berkowitz
One day in 1963, multi-instrumentalist Bruce Langhorne brought a Turkish frame drum to a recording session with Bob Dylan at the Columbia Recording Studio in New York City. The instrument didn’t make it onto the album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but it made a big impression on Dylan, who was starting to write his own songs.
“He had this gigantic tambourine,” wrote Dylan in the liner notes to Biograph, identifying Langhorne as the inspiration for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which he initially wrote for Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) but released on Bringing It All Back Home (1965). “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.”
Fifty years later, Bob Dylan is, well, still Bob Dylan, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” remains one of the high points of his career, his only number one hit, thanks to a 1965 cover recorded by the Byrds.
But despite a long list of accomplishments, Langhorne has largely been forgotten, living out his days in Venice, California, too ill to walk along the beach. He hasn’t played guitar since having a stroke in 2006, and though he self-released an album of solo demos in 2011, called Tambourine Man, his mind is less focused on those early sessions than it is on Archimedes, Albert Einstein, and mortality.
“At one point, I was like Mr. Guitar in Greenwich Village,” says Langhorne, talking by telephone on the 50th anniversary of the song’s release. “I got to play gospel, I got to play Irish folk music, I got to play everything. And one of the things I got to do was play music with this kid Bob Dylan.”
It Takes a Village
Growing up in Harlem, Langhorne played violin as a child, but stopped at 12 after losing two and a half fingers on his right hand in a fireworks accident. Instead, he took up acoustic guitar, and though he could only pick with his middle, ring, and pinky fingers, he developed a call-and-response style that relied on subtlety, quietly embellishing the melody, and voicing two or three notes at a time, each one perfectly placed.
By the time Dylan arrived in New York, Langhorne was already the guitarist of choice at Gerde’s Folk City, the center of Greenwich Village’s folk scene, where he would accompany multiple singers in any given night’s hootenanny. That’s how he met Dylan, along with fellow folkies Eric Andersen, Joan Baez, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Richie Havens, Carolyn Hester, Gordon Lightfoot, Fred Neil, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. In 1961, as the music reached the recording studios, Langhorne was there, first with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on their major-label debut, and next with Hester on an album that featured a young Dylan on harmonica, playing his first recording session.
Langhorne didn’t think much of Dylan’s chops, but felt a “telepathic” connection with him—once Dylan began writing songs, Langhorne’s opinion changed. “He can’t sing for shit, but he’s a great poet,” says Langhorne. “Even though I love him very much, I don’t think he can sing. I mean, I didn’t realize what a great poet he was until I started to really listen to some of the stuff that he was writing. Then I was impressed.”
He rejoined Dylan in the studio for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), playing on a version of “Corrina Corrina” that was released as the B-side of a single featuring the nonalbum track “Mixed Up Confusion,” on which Langhorne also played. Next came Bringing It All Back Home (1965), where Dylan officially transformed folk into folk-rock, with Langhorne playing on every cut, contributing epochal performances to “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
“It was a gig for me,” he says, talking about Bringing It All Back Home. “I was getting paid for playing guitar—in New York. How phenomenal is that? Getting paid was a big deal. Getting paid doing something that I enjoyed was a big deal. Being paid enough to live on as a musician in New York was a big deal. It was fun to get paid. It was fun to write music. It was fun to work with really incredibly talented people. But what is fun? The bottom line is I was a musician in New York City, getting paid to do what I would have had to do anyway.”
Langhorne had already electrified Dylan’s sound when he installed a pickup on his 1920 Martin 1-21 and plugged into a Fender Twin to record “Mixed Up Confusion” (that single was released on Dec. 14, 1962, more than two years before Dylan famously “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival). The historic Martin is now owned by collector Maple Byrne, Emmylou Harris’ guitar tech.
At the 1963 March on Washington, Langhorne stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil-rights heavyweights. He was there to accompany folk singer Odetta as she sang for the 300,000 people who came to watch King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The following winter, Dylan and Langhorne performed “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on the late-night Les Crane Show, but by summertime, after the notorious electric set at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan’s transition to rock was complete. Langhorne was replaced by electric bluesman Michael Bloomfield, who was replaced by Robbie Robertson, and apart from collaborating on the soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Dylan and Langhorne never played together again.
“Bobby was one of those people—his intent was very strong,” said Langhorne in 1998, describing those early sessions in an interview for Martin Scorcese’s film documentary No Direction Home. “I like to call somebody’s intent their thread. He would generate a thread from the beginning of his song to the end of his song that you could really latch onto, either as a listener or as an accompanist. And I would latch onto his thread and I knew what he was going to do. That’s the telepathic part. I had some idea of what he was going to do before he’d do it. Before he did it. Even if I’d never heard the material before.”
For years, it seemed as though Langhorne had played with everyone. Before and after those Dylan sessions, he recorded with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Hugh Masekela, Odetta, Babatunde Olatunji, Tom Rush, and John Sebastian. He was at the epicenter of change in the folk world, back at a time when session guitarists simply showed up ready to improvise, and an album could be recorded in a single day, or even in a few hours.
There were too many sessions to remember, even when Langhorne’s mind was still sharp, but in the years since his stroke, his memories tend to either blur together or disappear entirely.
On this early winter day, instead of answering questions about Dylan, Langhorne, now 76, talks about Odetta’s cover of “Masters of War”—“I was very happy and proud to be able to play with her”—or Belafonte—“Harry has always been an outspoken political voice, and I was flattered to assist him”—or the state of the natural world —“There’s a huge battle taking place between marsupials and placentals for domination of the surface of planet Earth.”
“Just occasionally you come across these geniuses. Bruce Langhorne was one.”—Jonathan Demme
He recorded a few songs on his own, but they never materialized into an album, and as folk-rock turned into rock, Langhorne went on to score soundtracks for Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971), Idaho Transfer (1973), and Outlaw Blues (1977); Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry (1976); and Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad (1976), Melvin and Howard (1980), and Swing Shift (1984).
“Just occasionally you come across these geniuses. Bruce Langhorne was one,” Demme has said. “These people all tend to work in the same way: They respond instinctively to the visual image. I still remember the insane thrill of being with Bruce in his apartment, with his guitar and other instruments, and looking at scenes from Melvin and Howard. He was playing things and I was just saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing.’ Bruce Langhorne has done some of the most beautiful scoring that I have ever been involved with, or ever known.”
‘A Joyous Noise’
Writing for film meant expanding into other sounds, other genres, and other instruments, especially keyboards, and by the ’90s, he was multitracking solo demos at home, mostly driven by African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. “Chihuahua” is sung from the point of view of a jealous pooch; “Subaru” is about a woman who loves Langhorne’s car more than she does Langhorne; and “Perfect Love” is the story of the Garden of Eden, told through a conversation with God. They’re joyful, infectious, and full of life, just like the portrait of Langhorne that graces the bottle of his own Brother Bru-Bru’s hot sauce, the pied piper who used to lead a musical parade along Venice Beach.
“As a species, we are mandated to do certain things, and one of those things is to make a joyous noise unto the Lord,” Langhorne says. “What is the most joyous noise that I can think of? It’s the sound of children laughing. But that’s just what I think. As I get older and older, as I get closer and closer to death, I get to realize that what I think is sometimes completely wrong. And my bottom-line answer always has to be, ‘Oh.’”
Langhorne says he still has the tambourine, bought at the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village. He says it could be carried inside a cymbal case and has a ring of small bells hanging along the inside of the rim. Longtime friends remember the guitarist for his hearty laugh, for being the kind of musician you’d gladly follow through the jingle-jangle morning. But what does it mean now to be Mr. Tambourine Man?
“I’ve also been called Mr. Fuckhead,” Langhorne says. “It’s just another name.”
It was a great compliment, wasn’t it, to have inspired someone like that?
“It certainly was.”
Do you like the song?
“I like other pieces of music more.”
“‘The Well-Tempered Clavier.’”
If Dylan came to visit, what would you do?
“I’d say, ‘Hi, Bob, how you doin’, man?’”
“Well, if me and Bobby Dylan actually started talking, we could probably talk for hours, and we’d wind up making each other laugh.”