Lyric Study: The Sultans of Swing

When we think about vehicles to tell stories with, the obvious come to mind: novels, short stories, television, and movies even. Do we, as consumers of fiction, give enough credit to songs as vehicles for a story to be conveyed? The short answer is: songs are one of the supreme storytelling methods. This week, I’m going to talk about my favorite example: “The Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits.

In my humble, if often misguided opinion, “Sultans of Swing” is a complete story from beginning to end. The story starts off with sensory involvement in the tune “You shiver in the dark, it’s been raining in the park.” So we already have the mood: it’s cold and rainy at the park. Does it matter which park? I’m guessing that you already have a park in your mind. While you are wet, cold, and miserable you are distracted by the sound of a band “blowing dixie” in double four-time. Mark (Knopfler – songwriter) could have said “playing” dixie, but to choose the word “blow” invokes a completely different image and description of style. This sound, brings you into a practically empty bar, but the sound is huge. In down south London. In the first verse, the narrator has established a very vivid image. Without being instructed, I smelled cigarettes and beer, that’s how well Knopfler paints the picture.

The next verse is imbued with brilliance. We start with “check out ‘Guitar George’.” We can infer that George is something of a local celebrity, to have such a nickname – George has either been playing forever and a day, or perhaps came from another town and his reputation precedes him. George knows all the chords, but he’s strictly rhythm. For me, this paints a picture of George off to the side, as he’s not interested in “making it cry or sing,” and would have no interest in the limelight. The word around town is that George can only afford an old guitar; so an unassuming guitar player with a big reputation is playing a guitar that might be beat up or held together with duct tape. We can imply this because if its all he can afford, we know that he’s not putting down a lot of money to get a vintage Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix is playing.

Also in the band is Harry, who is in a better socioeconomic situation than George. We don’t know what instrument that Harry plays, but we can think guitar, because it is essential to the Honky Tonk sound. Now, Harry isn’t concerned with making it big as a musician, he’s got a good job during the day. We don’t know how much Harry makes, but we can guess that it’s enough to play on this particular evening without having to worry about when the next gig is. Then, the big reveal: Harry and George are in a band called the Sultans of Swing.

Somewhere in the corner of the bar is a group of youth who couldn’t care less about what the band played. This youngsters were drunk, dressed nicely, and were perhaps being a distraction to our narrator who is clearly enamored with this new band he’s discovered (we can gauge the narrator’s interest by the details he’s provided about the musicians thus far). While this group of people are acting foolish in the corner, they are clearly fans of rock and roll, but the Sultans proceed with playing a Southern Louisiana style called “Creole.”

The experience comes to a satisfying close when a man (nondescript; I’ve always thought of the man as the singer) comes up to the microphone and says “goodnight, go home,” but he makes it fast with one more thing: “we are the Sultans of Swing.” That was perfect – I didn’t wonder what happened at the end, I knew. The band was going to tear down, go home, and so was the narrator. The Sultans may have been back the next week, Harry might have quit the band in favor of a promotion, George’s guitar might have broken and he didn’t have the money to fix it, or perhaps a pier six brawl broke out with the drunk youngsters outside the bar. In less than five minutes, I had become invested in these characters, to meditate on them filled in their own development. I firmly believe that’s why this song has stood the test of time as much as it has.

I’m going to close this week’s blog with some fun thoughts:

  1. It is entirely possible that “the Man” that announced the band was quitting for the night could have been Knopfler himself – he may have seen parts of Guitar George, Harry, and the front man in himself.
  2. In the song, the styles of music mentioned are: Dixie, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Creole, Honky Tonk, and Swing.
  3. There is a live version of this song with Eric Clapton – I highly recommend you check it out.

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