Mark Knopfler: Sailing to Philadelphia

16 Oct

Mark Knopfler’s Sailing to Philadelphia is based on the author Thomas Pynchon’s book Mason & Dixon, an historical fiction about the English surveyors who gave their names — and several years — to the boundary lines between Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

In the song, Knopfler takes the part of Jeremiah Dixon, James Taylor guests in the part of Charles Mason (the album also includes a guest cameo from Van Morrision).

“I suppose any good work, like the Pynchon book, makes you think about the present,” Knopfler said in the not-too-distant past, in a 2000 story with the Independent’s Patrick Humphries. “It’s a book about many things. And in a way, a song is only an attempt at a miniaturisation of something like that – it’s a huge great baggy book, which goes in any one of a million directions. So, if you like, the song is my three-minute take on a three-year book.”

Pynchon’ book was 773 pages, and published in 1997, some three years before Knopfler’s song on the solo album of the same name. Perhaps Knopfler’s description is coincidence, perhaps not.

(I confess I’ve not read the book, nor Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s best-known work. Three years is a long time. Pynchon is an annual contender for the Nobel Prize, which has not been won by an American since Toni Morrision in 1993, and wasn’t again this year. “Of the Americans thought to be on the long list, only Pynchon has written a big novel of big ideas — but it’s been 38 years since “Gravity’s Rainbow,” wrote Alexander Nazaryan in 2011 on Nazaryan called Mason & Dixon “a chiaroscuro patchwork of brilliance.”)

“Certainly it takes a lot of nerve (and ego) to write a nearly 800-page novel featuring two surveyors — yes, surveyors — as its heroes, but in Pynchon’s capable hands, Mason and Dixon become a great buddy act,” wrote the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani in a review of the book, “reminiscent, by turns, of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Tom and Huck, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Mason, who has trained as an astronomer, is the melancholy one: dour, meditative and given to bad dreams, he is haunted by the death of his wife, Rebekah, and shy about talking to his sons. Dixon is the outgoing one: fond of women and drink and song, he has a “general desire for anything, and on lucky days everything.”

Knopfler’s “miniaturisation” has its advantages. I was reminded of the song not long ago when happening upon the sign below on a late afternoon in the early fall (looking out on a rush hour traffic jam, it was easy to think Mason and Dixon would have made better time 250 years ago). And, in particular, the last part of the last verse Pynchon’s and Knopfler’s happy-go-lucky Dixon sings to Taylor’s Mason:

“Come up and feel the sun
A new morning is begun
Another day will make it clear
Why your stars should guide us here…”



3 Responses to “Mark Knopfler: Sailing to Philadelphia”

  1. LondonJazzCollector October 17, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    Knopfler was always a distinctive talented guitarist. Somewhere in a distant past I bought the first Dire Straights album Sultans of Swing. His timing and inflection is immaculate – time and geography out of joint for a British picker, though we also gave you the extraordinarily gifted Albert Lee. (By the way, we may want them back, hope they are in good condition)

    • David Markowitz October 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

      Many, many years ago, when I first started appreciating music, I most enjoyed two types: Motown and the early British rock groups. Knopfler and Dire Straits came later, but, I too, have always enjoyed his work. I was delighted to find Sailing to Philadelphia one day in the discount bin for two reasons: the artist and the topic. I was not disappointed. I’m happy to note that on this side of the water, we’ve given the world two things that may or may not be enjoyed: jazz and Starbucks.


  1. Tom’s Top 5′s: Albums of 2000 | Revolutions Per Minute - February 22, 2014

    […] Mark Knopfler: Sailing to Philadelphia ( […]

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