Who killed Davey Moore: an exploration of Dylan’s meanings

By Tony Attwood

Dylan was clearly taken by the death of Davey Moore in that he wrote and then performed this song three weeks after the death.  But was he moved by the events?  But then somehow it never turned up on an album.  It is suggested that this was more by chance it seems than anything else, but I wonder.  My writing of this little review has been with that issue in mind.

Dylan uses the simple (but very rare for him) device of chord changes word by word at the start to emphasise the drama, but as all other commentators have said long before I started writing these reviews, the song itself is a pastiche of Who Killed Cock Robin? – and English nursery rhyme popularly dating from the 18th century although there are versions dating back to the early 16th century).  And it survived beyond the books; certainly it was still recited when I was a child – another piece I recall my mother telling me as a child.

The original work begins…

Who killed Cock Robin?

I, said the Sparrowwith my bow and arrow,

I killed Cock Robin.

Quite why the sparrow killed the robin we don’t know, but robins will fight with each other to the death, and sparrows are vicious birds that will kill, and will steal nesting materials from robins. It’s all violence in the English garden.

However the British have always had a particular fondness for the robin, which features heavily on traditional Christmas cards.  In July 2015 a vote to give Britain a national bird (which we have not had before) came out heavily in favour of the robin.  Its nastier streaks are set aside in favour of Dickensian imagery.

And so, it seems, it has always been our favourite.  The poor little robin was killed by the nasty sparrow and from the death onwards the other animals of the forest all work together to give the poor robin a proper funeral.  At the end as the bull tolls the bell the animals cry and weep for the death of their poor comrade.

“Who Killed Davey Moore?” uses the format, but not the style – and I will come back to this in a moment.

Davey Moore was an American boxer who had boxed for around ten years despite being only 5 feet 2 inches tall, winning the World Featherweight title in 1959.

In a fight with Sugar Ramos for the title on 21 March 1963 Moore was defeated by technical knockout at the end of the 10th.  Davy Moore seemed fine at the end of the fight, did some interviews and then fell unconscious.  He had brain damage, did not regain consciousness and died four days later.

Following Moore’s death, Phil Ochs recorded Davey Moore and this version, as we would expect given Phil Ochs’ reformist agenda, is much more direct.  Presumably each song was written at around the same time with neither composer knowing of the work of the other until after both compositions were completed.

Dylan does indeed blame everyone for wanting their share of boxing, while only the boxer takes all the risks, and makes the (slightly misleading) political point that Davey Moore could not have fought in Cuba – a line that regularly drew a cheer from the audience when he performed the song in concerts.  But the fact is that amateur boxing was allowed on the island – the ban was on making money from the sport, not a ban on the sport itself.

Dylan did also prelude one performance by saying that the song had nothing to do with boxing, and then added,

“It’s taken directly from the newspapers, nothing’s been changed…  Except for the words.”  A Dylanism if ever there was one.  But what does that mean?

Phil Ochs song is personal and direct.  Dylan is the opposite; he blames everyone, no one, society, the situation, nothing… He paints a picture and says, “that’s just the confusing way life goes.”   There is no answer, and quite probably not even a question.  This is where we are, we watch each other die.

So while none of the animals blame the sparrow in the forest for the death of Cock Robin, Dylan has everyone claim it was not their fault.   Dylan is saying, if he is consciously saying anything at all, that everyone is guilty and everyone pleads innocence.  He ends with the words of Davey Moore’s wife, “it was God’s will”.

The song primarily works so well because of the power it builds up in each verse with its short lines and rhymes and half rhymes and then the sudden and almost shocking non-rhyme of “sure” and “worth”.  Indeed it is the shortness of the lines that links to the punch of the boxer.  We are hit by line after line and never get a chance to recover.

“Not I,” says the referee
“Don’t point your finger at me
I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
And maybe kept him from his fate
But the crowd would have booed, I’m sure
At not getting their money’s worth
It’s too bad he had to go
But there was a pressure on me too, you know
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

But where was Dylan in all this?  Seemingly standing outside of the debate.  Indeed he may have been a little cynical here for not only did Dylan later particularly pick up the cause of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, according to one report I found in Los Angeles magazine Dylan said he liked to train in a boxing gym he owned in Santa Monica.

Which raises the question, if Dylan is quite taken with boxing maybe it is just a reflection on the fact that we know it is a dangerous occupation, so why is everyone trying to distance themselves from the event?  Or again, maybe it is just about the way people behave, and really has nothing to do with boxing at all.

Undeniably there’s a dreadful double-take irony in some of the lines – like the gamblers’ whose defence was that back Davey to win.

“Not me,” says the gambling man
With his ticket stub still in his hand
“It wasn’t me that knocked him down
My hands never touched him none
I didn’t commit no ugly sin
Anyway, I put money on him to win”

I am also confused by the fact that although the song came out in a burst after the tragic events, it only stayed in the repertoire for a short while, and as we have noted was not recorded.  Maybe Dylan didn’t know his own reaction to all this.  Maybe he was just painting an LS Lowry-like picture, little people going about their lives, some live some die, time to move on.

Or to go to another extreme, as the Monty Python lines have it, “It’s a fair cop but society is to blame,” to which the policeman replies, “Agreed”.

And then we are stuck, for if it is everyone’s fault, we are no further on than saying it is no one’s fault.  And maybe we simply can’t go further for “it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.”

And if that is so, then maybe that is why I was very attracted to a very unexpected version of Davey Moore by  Boombox

But there is another point here.  This was a terrible tragedy, and a lot of people used the moment to call for the end of boxing.  Now maybe they meant it, but if so, were they campaigning before, and did they campaign after?  From Governor Brown to Pope John XXIII, I don’t recall the entreaties before or after.

On the other hand Hemingway often wrote positively about boxing, and Stanley Kubrick at the time of the fight was working as a photographer of boxers.  When in another notorious fight Griffith hammered Paret to pieces Norman Mailer wrote the graphic details of the fight in a poetic style in Esquire.  “He went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave.”

“Not me,” says the boxing writer
Pounding print on his old typewriter
Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame
There’s just as much danger in a football game”
Sayin’, “Fistfighting is here to stay
It’s just the old American way
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

We had boxing on TV in Britain a lot, and it was popular still in the East End clubs in London when I grew up.  My dad always loved watching it – it was part of his culture.  One of the billion things I wished I had talked to my dad about when I had the chance.

But we shouldn’t forget that unlike the Hurricane who could have been the champion of the world, Davey Moore was a world champion.  Both boxers lied about their age to quit school and get into the ring earlier than they should.

Davey Moore’s team mate, when they both fought on the Olympic team, was Big Ed Sanders, who also died as a result of injuries sustained after being knocked out in 1954.  The context is important – death by boxing was not unknown, boxing continued.

Sugar Ramos resumed boxing four months after Davey Moore’s death. He won six in a row before losing the featherweight title to Vicente Saldivar in 1964. He never regained the championship.   Of the fight he said, “I have thought about Davey Moore till I cannot think about it anymore.”

“Not me,” says the man whose fists
Laid him low in a cloud of mist
Who came here from Cuba’s door
Where boxing ain’t allowed no more
“I hit him, yes, it’s true
But that’s what I am paid to do
Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
It was destiny, it was God’s will”

Index to all the songs reviewed on this site

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3 Responses to Who killed Davey Moore: an exploration of Dylan’s meanings

  1. Murray Davis says:

    When I was 16, now 55, I used my interpretation of this song as the basis of my Confirmation speech from religious school, I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember the gist of my speech, “Our actions have consequences, so one must act responsible.
    I did read with interest the Cuban reference never understanding what is was, thanks for writing the article.

  2. Dylan is himself the Boxer. The center of attention, the man who is nakedly exposed, and for whom the consequences of failure are devastating, or fatal. He “leaves it all in the ring” as they say, putting the entirety of his being into his work.

    The song is a simile — the Artist as a Boxer, an archetypal figure. Dylan’s statement is that ordinary people can never understand such a man, even though though he is the focus of all their attention, and their livelihoods all depend on him.

  3. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/748/Who-Killed-Davey-Moore (Additional Information)

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