Review of Mark Knopfler’s “The Ragpicker’s Dream”

In 2002, rock legend Mark Knopfler released his third solo album and his lyrics and musicality continue to impress.  The Ragpicker’s Dream brings together diverse musical and vocal styles:  American folk, bluegrass, Irish and Scottish folk, rhythm and blues, progressive rock, country, blues, Western swing, and jazz.  Since American music comes from various immigrant oral traditions—at minimum, from Europe and Africa—it is hard to say which of these traditions is the chicken and which is the egg.  Knopfler resembles folk music itself:  just when you think you can pigeon-hole him, he defies your expectations.

The Ragpicker’s Dream showcases Knopfler’s voice as a singer and a poet.  His voice has a strong and deep timbre that conveys his images with the power of a bard.  His fingerpicking style makes his guitar mourn and sing.  The drums, bass, harmonica, and violin provide a rich background for his guitar and lyrics.    

This album is not for the faint of heart.  When you listen to the songs, you hear difficult stories from the down-on-their-luck characters that Knopfler creates.  Through the music and lyrics, the characters tell you about their troubles and confront you with the sometimes bitter truths that they have found.  Through these characters, Knopfler pounds out fundamental truths about the human condition, a condition that all of us face.  One of the questions that he and his characters answer is:  What does it mean to be a man? 

What does it mean to be a man?  No easy question.  A Google search of that question returns 1,440,000,000 hits.  Clearly, a lot of people are looking for the answer.  Is it about having money? Recognition? Success? The ability to attract women?  The world keeps changing, so how do we decide?  By asking yourself “What does it mean to be a man?”, you have found a key to the answer of what it means to be a man.  Pondering that question and deciding what the answer is takes courage.  Once you have settled on your answer, sticking with it when life brings you problems takes courage.  To be a man, no matter how you define it, you need courage. 

The Ragpicker’s Dream offers characters that are brave.  You see their courage in the middle of circumstances that would cause weaker men to struggle.  When you hear their stories, you may find yourself wondering why they do not give up when things are so difficult.  You may also wonder why these characters are not sitting around passively and whining about life’s problems.  Instead, they show courage and character by making something from the broken pieces of their lives and moving on.

This kind of courage–face life’s challenges and not give in to despair when life knocks you down—is the same kind of courage that you hear in Rudyard Kipling’s “If”.  “If” calls us to keep to our path, even when people and circumstances do not comply with our pursuit.  Likewise, the men of The Ragpicker’s Dream live out fundamental truths about male character and make important statements about life and courage. 

It is not easy to keep trying, especially when life is not good to you.  But the willingness to keep trying, another kind of optimism, is also courage.  The characters that Mark Knopfler creates in his album either have or need to have courage.   No matter what kind of circumstances they find themselves in, their voices are those of “real” men, facing whatever comes their way and trying to make something out of the hand they have been dealt.  Every man is the king of all he surveys and the songs on the albums are about men who are the kings of their worlds.  Their dignity and courage do not come from their status and they are ‘Everyman’ (, showing us fundamental truths about life.

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