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Bruce Langhorne, folk musician who inspired Bob Dylan's 'Mr. Tamborine Man,' dies at 78

Steve Marble, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- Bruce Langhorne, a 1960s-era folk musician and prolific session guitarist who Bob Dylan said inspired him to write "Mr. Tambourine Man," has died at the age of 78 at his home in Los Angeles.

Langhorne was a mainstay of the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the early '60s, playing or recording with the day's most admired musicians -- Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta, Tom Rush, Richie Haven, Richard and Mimi Farina.

But it was Langhorne's guitar work on Dylan's 1965 album "Bringing It All Back Home" that cemented his role as one of the architects of the emerging folk rock scene. Regarded as a seminal work, "Bringing It All Back Home" marked Dylan's musical shift from acoustic to electric and his bittersweet farewell to the protest movement that had defined his early career.

"Mr. Tambourine Man," a song of unrelenting insomnia and urban bleakness whose precise meaning has remained a riddle for decades, was on the acoustic side of the album. Langhorne said Dylan told him -- in cryptic terms, of course -- that he'd inspired the song because of the Turkish drum fitted with tiny bells that the session musician sometimes used in place of a traditional tambourine.

Though Dylan gave credit to him for inspiring the song in the liner notes of a subsequent box set, Langhorne said in an interview that the famously contrarian musician would likely deny it if ever asked.

"I think he had a wonderful ability to let people have just enough rope to hang themselves," Langhorne told author Richie Unterberger in a two-part interview. "And I think he'd probably do that with me if he thought I was attached to being Mr. Tambourine Man."

Born May 11, 1938, in Tallahassee, Fla., Langhorne grew up in Harlem and was a violin student until he accidentally blew off the tips of several fingers on his right hand after picking up a cherry bomb just as it exploded.

He took the accident in stride, according to his biography on brucelanghorne.com. "At least I don't have to play violin anymore."

Just the same, he picked up the guitar instead and became a go-to session musician in the early '60s, though the childhood accident forced him to innovate.

"Since I have fingers missing, some styles of guitar playing were forever unreachable for me," he told Unterberger. In some cases, he said he was forced to play two notes with one finger to compensate for the nubs he'd been left with.

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