Bruce Langhorne: For the Benefit of Mr. Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne, Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan and Bill Lee. September 29, 1961

To those of us who were around the folk music scene of the sixties and to either academic or armchair ethnomusicologists, guitarists both old and young of the past and present, Bruce Langhorne is not unfamiliar. And should you not know the name, you know the man.

Born in Harlem in 1938, Langhorne was a regular at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, where he accompanied many of the musicians who would perform at the hootenannies. He developed a unique style of fingerpicking and would sometimes attach a soundhole pickup to his 1923 Martin 1-21 and run it through Sandy Bull’s Fender Twin reverb.

By 1961, he was in the recording studio as a hired gun, first with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, followed by Carolyn Hester, and then he contributed to several tracks on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. He’s likely the guitarist on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Corrina, Corrina,” though in the deep dark world of the Dylan defenders of mythology, that’s been disputed.

Occasionally at performances or recording sessions, Langhorne would play a large Turkish frame drum that had small bells attached to the interior. He used it mostly on the Vanguard albums by Richard and Mimi Fariña that he is featured on, and it inspired a young Bob Dylan to write a song about him. Recorded by The Byrds and serving as an introduction to a wider audience, “Mr. Tambourine Man” has undoubtedly kept the Nobel Prize winner swimming in a steady stream of royalties.

“He had this gigantic tambourine,” wrote Dylan in the liner notes to his anthology Biograph,  identifying Langhorne as the inspiration for “Mr. Tambourine Man.” 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.”

On Jan. 14, 1965, Langhorne was called to Columbia’s Studio B along with a full electric band to back Bob Dylan for his fifth album. With no rehearsal, they worked on eight songs and in three and a half hours and came away with master takes on five of them. The next day, most of the same musicians were back to knock out the rest of Bringing It All Back Home. Although the album was originally recorded with a full electric band, Dylan decided to use only half the songs from those sessions and re-recorded the other half acoustically, with Langhorne playing countermelody on his amplified Martin. You can hear his lead guitar featured along with the full band on this iconic video of  “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

I found a profile of Langhorne published in August 2016 on the Acoustic Guitar website, written by Kenny Berkowitz. I’ll let him pick up the story:

“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.

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).

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.”

This Gordon Lightfoot song was covered by Peter, Paul and Mary back in 1964, and it prominently features Langhorne’s guitar work. I was a little too young to know who he was at the time, but I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times.

It was a message from my oldest son that prompted me to write this column. He works for an organization promoting concerts of experimental music in New York and through guitarist Loren Connors he learned of a new album being released in February titled The Hired Hands: A Tribute to Bruce Langhorne.

Dylan Golden Aycock, with Connors and his partner and collaborator Suzanne Langille, compiled the project, which pays homage to Langhorne’s work and specifically to the soundtrack he composed for Fonda’s film. Here’s how they explain the concept:

“The goal here was to ask artists to cover or reinterpret a song of their choice from the soundtrack. No rules on whether the music should be derivative of a certain song, if the soundtrack inspires a mood, then the artists use their intuition.

Bruce has come on hard times in recent years, having suffered a stroke that prevents him from playing the guitar. He’s currently in hospice care awaiting his final curtain call. A large percentage of profit go to Bruce and his family.”

I linked it above, but if you click here you can preorder this handcrafted set of music from some of todays finest players, some you may know and others you don’t. It’s available both as a double CD with extensive liner notes from Byron Coley (reprinted on the Bandcamp page), and a digital download. There are also nine tracks you can stream for free right now.

Bruce was placed in hospice care in late 2015. Friends, as well as people who only knew of Bruce by reputation, came from near and far to pay their respects and, often, play some music for him. The huge outpouring of love boosted his spirit (and his body), and he was upgraded to palliative care. Bruce continues to radiate good vibes and love in his Venice, CA home. For more information, contact Cynthia Riddle 310-808-4922

“Yeah, he was a wizard. My part is pretty basic on ‘Urge for Going,’ but he was the one who did those triple pull-off things, the diddey-bump kinda lines. He’s in California. He had a stroke, and he can’t play much anymore which is really a shame. He was such a good player. Actually as a kid he had blown off most of his thumb and first two fingers on his right hand with fireworks, which got him out of the draft because they figured if he didn’t have a trigger finger, he couldn’t fire a rifle. So, of course, he became a guitar player, and then decided he was going to be a piano player later in life. Since his stroke he doesn’t play much at all. He’s supposedly the guy who inspired ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ Dylan’s song, ’cause he also played tambourine and just about anything you can imagine.” Tom Rush, April 2015

Postscript: For another look at Bruce’s story, check out The Perlich Post‘s article.