Knopfler Kronikles  part 4: SAILING TO PHILADELPHIA

Knopfler Kronikles  part 4


by Norman Warwick

I think we can safely assume that Discover Music hold Knopfler in the same high regard as a poet as does our reader Peter Pearson, who fired the starting pistol at me to ensure I set off, accompanied only by the loneliness of the long-distance runner, in pursuit of all things Knopfler-esque.

According to the Discover Music web site, the solo album catalogue of Mark Knopfler contains nothing but exquisitely crafted songs that uniquely tie together the roots music of British and American culture. But most Knopfler fans would agree that the former Dire Straits frontman hit a particularly rich seam when he released his second LP in his own name, Sailing To Philadelphia, on September 26, 2000.

Since then, Mark’s rate of productivity has travelled in the opposite direction from that of most long-standing artists. In the following 15 years, he made six more solo records, in addition to numerous other productions, guest appearances and his ever-extensive touring.

But in 2000, Sailing To Philadelphia arrived after a gap of four years from Knopfler’s official solo debut (not counting film soundtracks), Golden Heart. There was, in the interim, the small matters of an extensive tour behind that first album and scores for Metroland and Wag The Dog.

Ever open to inspiration from the arts, and especially from literature, he was moved to create the new songs after reading Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon, based on the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. They were the English surveyors who created the Mason-Dixon Line, the symbolic boundary between free and slave states before the American Civil War. It still denotes the divide between the Northern and Southern United States.

Enterprising casting for the title song had him singing the role of Dixon (“I am a Geordie boy…it was my fate from birth, to make my mark upon the earth”) while James Taylor(left) played “Charlie” Mason (“It seems that I was born to chart the evening sky…they’d cut me out for baking bread, but I had other dreams instead”).

“James had asked if I’d produce him,” revealed Knopfler at the time. “We had a couple of chats and it occurred to me that he would be really ideal to play this part, if you like. With James’ folk background I thought he could play Charlie Mason really well.”

photo 3 van The album was a Top 5 hit all over Europe, reaching No.1 in Germany, Italy and elsewhere and going gold in the UK, US, Australia and beyond, and platinum in several other countries. Among the other dozen songs on it was a cameo by another famous artist that Mark greatly admired, Van Morrison (left), on “The Last Laugh.”

“Van has been so much a part of my life, since I was a kid in university,” said Mark of Morrison’s appearance. “It’s a thrill to hear him singing a song you’ve written, because of what Van’s music has meant to me over the years.”

Other highlights included “Silvertown Blues” (featuring Knopfler’s old friends Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford from Squeeze), “Junkie Doll,” the single “What It Is” and two tracks containing particularly fine Knopfler guitar performances, “Speedway At Nazareth” and “Baloney Again.”

The web site, songmeanings and facts gave a backward glance to the album in July of 2021, with Amanda London reminding us in her article that “Sailing to Philadelphia” is actually a historical song centered on two individuals, Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779). The pair, who both were from England, served as, amongst other things, surveyors in Colonial America. In fact they were the ones who established the famous Mason-Dixon Line, i.e. the de facto boundary which differentiates the northern side of the eastern seaboard from the southern side.

And in terms of characterizing these figures, Knopfler was further inspired by a novel about them entitled Mason & Dixon (1997). So this isn’t just a bland recounting of their relationship. Mark rather gives us a colorful retelling complete with what we would presume to be fictitious embellishments.

And it starts off with Dixon introducing himself to Mason. One of the lines that jumps out near the beginning is when he presents himself as someone who fancies ladies. That immediately lets the reader know that this isn’t your standard historical song but rather one that is personalized as novels tend to go. 

But that said, another notable line in the first verse is when Jeremiah notes that he surveyed a large swath of northern England. So we’re made aware that he had such experience even before coming stateside.

Then next comes Charles Mason. His primary profession was actually astronomy, a fact he notes by referring to himself as “a stargazer”. In fact as an interesting side note, he and Dixon actually met on an astronomy expedition prior to venturing to North America.

We are also made aware that Mason pursued such a field against his family’s wishes, as he was born a “baker’s boy” and was expected to follow that endeavor instead. Moreover, it is also revealed that he too is from England. And such is also the premise upon which the chorus, which depicts the two homeys “sailing to Philadelphia”, is based. And as elaborated earlier, they are doing so to “draw… the Mason-Dixon Line”.

Now you may have noticed earlier that we mentioned Colonial America, not the United States of America. That is because the establishment of the Mason-Dixon Line took place in the mid-1760s, a decade before America achieved independence. So this is at the time when officially the country was still under the rule of England. And of course this historical reality had to make its way into this narrative somehow.

It is done so by Jeremiah Dixon being portrayed as the one who favors American independence.  But obviously, Mason doesn’t agree with him. Instead he perceives his co-worker as being, shall we say dangerously “gullible”, i.e. someone wild enough to be born into a family of bakers but instead ends up “in the forests of the Iroquois”, i.e. venturing through uncharted Native American territories.

But from the perspective of Dixon, the activity they are engaged in is more or less symbolic of America’s inevitable right to freedom. Or, let’s say that he views the establishment of the colonies as a new era in history, one which will bear witness to them, as destined, becoming an independent nation. 

And as another footnote, the American Revolution had already commenced before they finished establishing the Line.  Moreover, whereas the Mason-Dixon may not have had a role in the American Revolution, it was a heavily symbolic boundary as far as the Civil War, which came about 100 years later, goes.

So it can perhaps be interpreted that the “liberty” being referred to also applies to that of the slaves, i.e. all people of the colonies.

Conclusively, a brief perusal of Jeremiah Dixon’s personal history doesn’t indicate that he was pro-revolution or anything like that. Rather those ideas being introduced to the stories of these two individuals seem to have come from the aforementioned book and even in that case as more of a subplot. 

So yes, Mark Knopfler, (right) did decide to acknowledge these 18th century figures in song. But it just so happens that their signature achievement transpired right around the time of arguably the greatest event in America’s history. And that latter reality was something that neither he nor Mason & Dixon could ignore.

Mark Knopfler, the song’s primary vocalist is its official composer. He’s a British songwriter, guitarist and record producer. He wrote the song in an autobiographical style, telling the story of famous surveyors Charlie Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.

“Sailing to Philadelphia” was released on 26th September 2000 after being recorded in Ocean Way Studios. The song appears on a Mark Knopfler album of the same name, and was released as a single and featured American singer and songwriter James Taylor.

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