"The Ragpicker's Dream" as written by and Mark Knopfler....
When Jack Frost came for Christmas
With a brass monkey date
The rail-king and the scarecrow
Hopped a Florida freight
And they blew on their paper cups
And stared through the steam
Then they drank half a bottle
Of Ragpicker's dream where

The whiskey keeps following
Cold pitchers of beer
Me and my associate
Like the clientele here get
The onions and the 'taters
Rib-eyes on the grill
Toothpicks and luckies
And a coffee refill as

The rail-king lay rocking
He was leaving the ground
Then he was flying like Santa Claus
Over the town where
He came to the window
Of a house by a stream
It was a family christmas
In the Ragpicker's dream there

Were kids at the table
All aglow in the light
Music in the wintertime
Sure carries at night there
Was turkey and gravy
Pie and ice-cream
And gifts for each and everyone
In the Ragpicker's dream where

The red-eye keeps tumbling
In our glasses of beer
Me and my associate
Like the service in here there's
A ten for your trouble
You have beautiful hair
Make the last one two doubles
It's a cold one out there where

The scarecrow and the rail-king
Have started to dance
But a nightstick and a billy-club
Won't give peace a chance here
I think they went that-aways
Your song and dance team
Heading home for the holidays
With the Ragpicker's dream on

His knees like a fighter
The rail-riding king
Like a sack of potatoes
Like a bull in the ring where
The scarecrow falls over
With a tear in the seam
Home for the rover
In the Ragpicker's dream where

The red-eye keeps tumbling
Like tears in our beer
Me and my associate
Like the ambiance here where
They cornered two castaways
In a white flashlight beam
Merry christmas and happy days
In the Ragpicker's dream


Lyrics submitted by Libra

"The Ragpicker's Dream" as written by Mark Knopfler

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

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The Ragpicker's Dream song meanings
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  • +1
    Song MeaningI agree with butcherdawood and haxorchick, this song is beautiful--this might be my favorite song of all time. And it does always remind me of the holidays as I almost always begin to listen to Mark when the weather begins to change in the fall.

    Where I have to disagree with you guys is in the song's tone. It's actually a pretty straight forward story, and since no one's taken a crack at breaking it down, I'll give my interpretation of it.

    When Jack Frost came for christmas
    With a brass monkey date
    The rail-king and the scarecrow
    Hopped a Florida freight
    And they blew on their paper cups
    And stared through the steam
    Then they drank half a bottle
    Of ragpicker's dream where

    The song starts off with an introduction of our two protagonists, The Rail-King and the Scarecrow, two alcoholic (see meaning of brass monkey) hobos (bums, homeless folk) are fleeing the bitter cold of the northern United States for the warmer climes of Florida. They try to warm themselves against the cold with paper cups of coffee, but eventually turn to the warmth and mental respite found in a fictional bottle of what is probably some kind of gin or whiskey, called The Ragpicker's Dream. This name has a double meaning at the end of the first verse, and throughout the song. The bottle of liquor also functions as an escape to a dream world--a warm place where loved ones reside and food is plentiful. Ragpicker's were very low, working class people who rummaged and salvaged materials of any value that could be sold. So, a Ragpicker's dream would probably consist of material things that he could never hope to have; wealth, warmth, and a constant supply of food and drink. In any case, it simply translates to getting lost in a bottle.

    The whiskey keeps following
    Cold pitchers of beer
    Me and my associate
    Like the clientele here get
    The onions and the 'taters
    Rib-eyes on the grill
    Toothpicks and luckies
    And a coffee refill as

    This verse is probably a memory within a dream, where the reality of the memory is skewed to have a happier outcome for the two men. The two men are obviously enjoying a meal and some warmth in a restaurant. They are living it up, and probably living beyond their means, which foreshadows what is to come.

    The rail-king lay rocking
    He was leaving the ground
    Then he was flying like Santa Claus
    Over the town where
    He came to the window
    Of a house by a stream
    It was a family christmas
    In the ragpicker's dream there

    Were kids at the table
    All aglow in the light
    Music in the wintertime
    Sure carries at night there
    Was turkey and gravy
    Pie and ice-cream
    And gifts for each and everyone
    In the ragpicker's dream where

    These two verses, I think, are yet more foreshadowing for the end of the song. I'll come back to this point, but suffice it to say that the Rail-King is dreaming again. He might be remembering a time when he was a child, and life was better. But the dream could also be an amalgamation of scenes pieced together as an outsider looking in the windows of wealthier homes.

    The red-eye keeps tumbling
    In our glasses of beer
    Me and my associate
    Like the service in here there's
    A ten for your trouble
    You have beautiful hair
    Make the last one two doubles
    It's a cold one out there where

    This is where the dream begins to fade back into reality. The two men have had their fill of food and are now getting drunk in the restaurant (red eye is a type of whiskey), and when they leave they are pretty much wasted.

    The scarecrow and the rail-king
    Have started to dance
    But a nightstick and a billyclub
    Won't give peace a chance here
    I think they went thataways
    Your song and dance team
    Heading home for the holidays
    With the ragpicker's dream on

    At this point, the Scarecrow and Rail-King have left the restaurant and are making a lot of noise out on the street, dancing and singing in a drunken manner. It might be inferred that they made an untoward gesture toward the waitress. In the narrator's, memory of the night he recalls only telling her that she has nice hair, and he tips her a ten, which would have been a LOT of money (remember this). But the compliment might have been a little more on the blue side, and more than likely, considering the kind of food they were eating, the drink they imbibed, and the good cigarettes they were smoking, coupled with the fact that they are basically two train riding, homeless guys, leads to the probability that they skipped out on the bill. Someone, possibly the waitress, is telling the beat cops in which direction the two con-men have fled--probably for the train yard.

    His knees like a fighter
    The rail-riding king
    Like a sack of potatoes
    Like a bull in the ring where
    The scarecrow falls over
    With a tear in the seam
    Home for the rover
    In the ragpicker's dream where

    The red-eye keeps tumbling
    Like tears in our beer
    Me and my associate
    Like the ambience here where
    They cornered two castaways
    In a white flashlight beam
    Merry christmas and happy days
    In the ragpicker's dream

    The cops have now caught up to the two men, and are beating them senseless (Rodney King style) with billy clubs. This scene is foreshadowing the verse where "the Rail-King lay rocking, he was leaving the ground". The foreshadowing in that verse suggests that he has been knocked unconscious, or perhaps he has been mortally wounded and his soul is leaving his body, rising up above it all. In any case, his mind is working to dull the reality of the situation.

    The imagery of the two men's beating is so subtle and gracefully written that it's poetic. The Rail-King is trying to fight back, but he is too drunk. He's knocked to his knees and hits the ground "like a sack of potatoes". Meanwhile the Scarecrow, who by his very name is probably a very tall, skinny man incapable of putting up a fight, take one hit and rolls over "with a tear in the seam" (probably a very nasty cut to the head).

    Both of the bums have been heavily handled by the cops, and the two men are unconscious and dreaming once again. But as they recall things at the very end, they remember that their good times ended in the glare of a flashlight beam, and in violence.

    I find the last few lines particularly poignant, and it's here that the listener has to make a decision on how he/she interprets the song. Were they simply "two castaways" looking for warmth and a place to belong who were picked on by the locals because of their shabby appearance? Or were they two drunkards who behaved badly in public, insulted the honor of a lady, and neglected to pay their bill?

    I like to believe the former. I think the tone of the song is sad and intentionally evokes a feeling of pity for these two men. Yes, they are drunks, but I like to think that did nothing really wrong, except to be different. They rode a train into town, leaving troubles and the cold behind, only to find that they were just as unwelcome in the new place as they were in the old place. In essence, their fate had followed them.

    And though my interpretation may be a bit more bleak than the way the above posters like to see it, I still think the song is one of the most beautifully written pieces of poetry and music I've ever heard.

    Cheers.


    CromCromon August 07, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI agree with haxorchick. Its a beautiful and soothing song that I always listen to when I'm doing. The lyrics and the tune tell me, "Hey, everything will be okay."

    The song deals is exactly what the title says it is - A Ragpicker's Dream. A poor and downtrodden guy dreams of living a quiet and comfortable life around christmas. The allusions to comfort, alcohol, a bar, and most importantly an 'associate' - a friend to take away his loneliness are all very touching. The visual imagery of food, drink and christmas make the song merry and make me happy when I listen to it.

    At the same time, there is always a tinge of sadness throughout the song. The very fact that the song is a 'dream' for the ragpicker, and it is something which he aspires to have, but can never really hope to have it leads to this sadness.
    butcherdawoodon July 01, 2011   Link
  • 0
    Song MeaningTwo hobos jump a train to head south (rail riders always had nicknames, and were always dodging railroad police)...they get drunk and fantasize, pretending they're in a fine restaurant for Christmas instead of a freezing cold, rattling boxcar. They joke about flirting with an imaginary waitress, like a couple of aristocrats. The train stops, the railroad police (legendary for their brutality in the old days) beat them to death. In their dying thoughts, they have fantasies of all the comforts of family, friends and warmth of Christmas. Not a really tough one to understand here. Knopfler is a great history teacher. I suggest we learn from him by studying the historical circumstances that inspire his songs. This one should lead us to study police brutality and the social unacceptability of real unconventional freedom.
    normanplombeon May 14, 2014   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationI personally think there's more than two protagonists (The Rail-king, a male hobo, the Scarecrow, a female hobo, the Truckdriver (1st person observer).
    Here's how I read the song:

    When Jack Frost came for Christmas
    With a brass monkey date
    The rail-king and the scarecrow
    Hopped a Florida freight
    And they blew on their paper cups
    And stared through the steam
    Then they drank half a bottle
    Of Ragpicker's dream where

    Somewhere north (New England?) two hobos get on a train (illegaly, a freight car) for sunny Florida, because the winter is particular cold (Jack Frost and a Brass Monkey date, signifying a particularly cold spell)

    They manage to warm som sort of drink - coffee?, and they blow on them to cool them down.
    Then they share an unknown licquor dubbed "Ragpickers Dream", probably just a mix of whatever is available.


    The whiskey keeps following
    Cold pitchers of beer
    Me and my associate
    Like the clientele here get
    The onions and the 'taters
    Rib-eyes on the grill
    Toothpicks and luckies
    And a coffee refill as

    The second verse changes to someone observing a scene, maybe looking out at the train station where the train is stopping. Could also be a memory from the Rail King, but I think it's a third person, maybe a truck-driver.
    Either way, this person is enjoying a meal of rib-eyes with onions, potatoes, along with beer. Once the meal is over, he asks for cigarettes and coffee while looking at the scene.


    The rail-king lay rocking
    He was leaving the ground
    Then he was flying like Santa Claus
    Over the town where
    He came to the window
    Of a house by a stream
    It was a family christmas
    In the Ragpicker's dream there

    In the third verse, the on-looker sees the rail-king and the scene changes to the Rail King's dream - seemingly a childhood memory or a fantasy of how a nostalgic christmas is supposed to be.

    Were kids at the table
    All aglow in the light
    Music in the wintertime
    Sure carries at night there
    Was turkey and gravy
    Pie and ice-cream
    And gifts for each and everyone
    In the Ragpicker's dream where

    4th verse is just an extention of the dream-scene.
    However, I get the feeling that the on-looker (truck driver) also longs for this christmas scene, even if he's in a warm place eating nice food.

    The red-eye keeps tumbling
    In our glasses of beer
    Me and my associate
    Like the service in here there's
    A ten for your trouble
    You have beautiful hair
    Make the last one two doubles
    It's a cold one out there where

    5th verse is back with the truck-driver, who is getting ready to leave for work, decides to procrastinate, drinking whiskey (red eye), because it's cold (instead of 1 whiskey he essentially gets 4, suggesting he's delaying).

    The scarecrow and the rail-king
    Have started to dance
    But a nightstick and a billy-club
    Won't give peace a chance here
    I think they went that-aways
    Your song and dance team
    Heading home for the holidays
    With the Ragpicker's dream

    6th verse is back with the hobos who have "started to dance". I think this may mean that they are squabbling or fighting or maybe having sex, causing commotion. The Truck-driver notices that rail personelle is on the scene and either breaks up the fight/activity, threatening violence (nightstick and billyclub). However, the two hobos escape and the truck driver says (or thinks) that the "song and dance team went that-a-way", maybe trying to get back on the train.

    On his knees like a fighter
    The rail-riding king
    Like a sack of potatoes
    Like a bull in the ring where
    The scarecrow falls over
    With a tear in the seam
    Home for the rover
    In the Ragpicker's dream where

    7th verse suggest that the hobos have taken a beating, the Railking almost unconcious and the Scarecrow (a woman) with an open cut or wound (tear in the seam). "Home for the rover" is an oxymoron of sorts, because a rover (a nomad) doesn't have a home. This could suggest that they are back on the train - or not - or it is a self-reflection of the truck-driver, that he too is a nomad, that he won't be home for christmas either.

    The red-eye keeps tumbling
    Like tears in our beer
    Me and my associate
    Like the ambiance here where
    They cornered two castaways
    In a white flashlight beam
    Merry christmas and happy days
    In the Ragpicker's dream

    The 8th verse definitely suggest that the hobos are caught - cornered by a flashlight beam, and the truck-driver is getting sentimental, crying or equivalating the whiskey (red eye) with tears, longing for something that he doesn't have either.

    The final two lines serve as a reminder to you as a listener, that there are people unfortunate out there, whether they are hobos or have a job, that they are not home for christmas - have a merry christmas, but mind these people too.

    I find the song very sentimental and very good. At first I didn't realize that it's actually a christmas song, even though MK writed this into the lyrics. I simply found it to be just another story. But the more I listen, the more I realize that it's meant as an actual christmas song - although quite sad.
    nwintheron December 12, 2016   Link
  • -1
    General CommentI can't believe no one has commented on this song yet! In my opinion it is one of his most beautiful, soothing songs.
    I always listen to it at Christmas just because of the many obvious references - it always brings back a feeling of peace and family.
    haxorchickon July 15, 2010   Link
  • -1
    General CommentHi all. as ageneral (and first) comments, just guys think how the language barrier may mean for a non natural english spoken. We always assume we're not grasping it all so we let the imagination fly.
    Particularly with great Mark's songs where things don't necessarily mean something clear.
    In this case (get ready guys) I simply imagined the scare crow is a woman. Why? Why not!! I agree most of considerations on contrast with Xmas feelings and misery for the two people and how the nice Xmas feelings (and the bottle) make them scape the misery. So I thought that a love story within this context got stronger and made the situation deeper (in terms of communicating feelings) too.
    I ams urprised no one has considered this possibility, and alsoa sk you if there's some line that simply discards it. You know we latin speakers have genre more clear so the ambiguity in english makes us guess.
    I think the the story of the two poor homeless man and lady would be sooo nice in this context, yet sad and all in a very Dickensian way, right?
    I guess that hints such as the beautiful hair, the dancing, the tear made me think they love each other. I didn't know, but I imagined the rest.
    What you think?
    regards
    sapitoon December 18, 2011   Link
  • -1
    General CommentForgot to add!! Also the euphemistic way to refer to her as associate, together with tha fact of him being the Railroad king, that yes keeps a lot of dignity and pride, something usual in these kind of characters in these stories.
    Also that for me is really good Christmas song. It makes a knot in my throat, but then so many other songs also do!! :) Yes it's in my not-at-all-short-list of songs to listen in Christmas... :)
    sapitoon December 18, 2011   Link
  • -1
    General CommentI don't think the "brass monkey date" phrase refers to alcholics. Here in England there is an old vernacular expression that "it is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey". In conversation this is generally shortened to something like "it's brass monkeys outside" to indicate that it is very cold.

    So what Mark is saying in his own sweet way in the opening lines is that the weather turned bitterly cold so our heroes jumped on a freight train heading South looking for warmer weather.

    Although there is no indication of the sex of the Scarecrow it would be nice to think that she is a woman and they have each other and a bottle of booze to celebrate Christmas together. Rather mirroring my other favourite Christmas song - a Fairytale of New York - of two old bums finding some peace and comfort with each other at Christmas.

    Cheers
    Ron
    RonRichon March 28, 2014   Link

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