Bruce Langhorne, a.k.a “Mr. Tambourine Man,” master guitarist, mandolin player, and percussionist, was a man living in the right place and at the right time for musical revolution. The place was New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, where an accomplished session guitarist could sit in with the most innovative artists of the day. The time was that critical turning point in 20th-century American music when the traditional folk scene first embraced the electric excitement of rock. Langhorne was in the studio all the time, contributing to the evolving sounds of such artists as Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Langhorne began his musical career as a violin prodigy. Then, at age 12, he lit the fuse on a homemade rocket and it detonated in his hand. The explosion blew off most of his right thumb, index and middle fingers. Despite his impairment, he took up guitar at 17, picking the strings with two fingers and the remains of a third. “I had to rely on communication and empathy,” he said. “Which is why I really liked working with Bob Dylan.” This ability to understand the minds of other musicians made Langhorne the ultimate session guitarist. In the words of Dylan, “If you had Bruce playing with you, that’s all you would need to do just about anything.”
Langhorne is best known for work he did in early 1965 for Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home album. According to Dylan:
Bruce… had this gigantic tambourine… It was as big as a wagon-wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.
In the course of his career, Langhorne contributed to records by Odetta and Joan Baez. He played with Tom Rush and Peter, Paul & Mary. His pioneering electric guitar on Richard and Mimi Fariña’s Celebrations for a Grey Day forged a gritty, new sound that influenced a generation of folk-rockers.
Given the cult status of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” it is all the more shocking that when Langhorne had to interrupt his career due to a stroke in 2006, he was without any financial means. The man who had performed with Odetta at the 1963 March on Washington — playing “Oh Freedom” as Dr. Martin Luther King made his way to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — was unable to pay his rent.
In the aftermath of the stroke, the Musicians Foundation helped this iconic figure in our nation’s musical history weather the most difficult period of his life. Langhorne went on to release his one official solo record, Mr. Tambourine Man, in 2011. The Musicians Foundation is proud to have supported this artist, innovator and muse, who has given so much to our country’s musical history.