by Jochen Markhorst
“Buddy” is deeply hurt in The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004). The young fan is so eager to become Mr.Incredible’s helper, has crafted all kinds of gadgets with which he can compensate for his lack of superpowers, has already fully outlined how he can be a useful, perhaps indispensable sidekick for his big idol, but unfortunately … not unfriendly, but a bit weary, Mr. Incredible rejects him and pushes him out of his super hero dream, back to the normal human world.
Years later the rancorous Buddy takes revenge. He is now “Syndrome”, and has further qualified himself in his gadgets – ingenious inventions with which he eradicates all superheroes one by one. And now the crown on his work: it’s Mr. Incredible’s turn. The punchline of his triumphant evil speech is now almost classic:
“Oh, I’m real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I’ll give them heroics. I’ll give them the most spectacular heroics anyone’s ever seen! And when I’m old and I’ve had my fun, I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super! And when everyone’s super… [laughs maniacally]…no one will be!”
Buddy gives in to an admittedly despicable, but universal vice. The Scandinavians call it The Law Of Jante, in most Germanic languages it is called ground level culture, in China 棒打 出頭鳥 (“the bird that lifts its head”) and in Anglo-Saxon culture it is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome – but the phenomenon has already been described twenty-five centuries ago by Herodotus (in The Histories 5). In essence, it is the envious urge to pull down anyone who positively distinguishes himself, back to the Great Common Denominator.
Syndrome has an original, more subtle, in his eyes more humiliating variant: he does not lower the Tall Poppy, but elevates everyone else to the level of the one that stands out above ground level, Mr. Incredible, so that the special thing about the superhero suddenly becomes normal and everyday, has become the Great Common Denominator.
An extension of this is the moral variant, chosen by song poet Dylan for his fascinating youth work “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Determining liability in the matter of boxer Davey Moore’s tragic death, the singer leads us to the uncomfortable truth that we are all guilty. We, our society, our culture – and that ultimately nobody is guilty.
It is a toxic consequence of every society. In every collective arise mechanisms, morals, conventions, which can be cruel to the individual or, as here, fatal. The philosophers of the Frankfurter Schule (Adorno, Marcuse) articulate not very accessibly this inevitable phenomenon. More accessible and moving, the Swiss genius Max Frisch depicts the “guilty collective innocence” in his plays – in Andorra (1961), in particular.
The American premiere of this parable-like piece takes place in February 1963 on Broadway, New York. It is likely that Dylan, who absorbs cultural, literary and musical impressions like a sponge in these days, has at least indirectly taken note of Andorra, one of Frisch’s most Brechtian pieces. Just like Brecht, Frisch uses Verfremdungseffekte (“estrangement effects”), and just like in Brecht’s Lehrstücke, Frisch demonstrates here with the fate of the tragic Andri how the collective can inadvertently destroy an individual.
A few weeks after that premiere in February, on March 21, 1963, boxer Davey Moore loses his world title in the fight with Sugar Ramos, after which he will die. And again three weeks later, on April 12 in the Town Hall, near Broadway, Dylan plays his new topical song about the tragedy.
The more serious Dylanologists all suspect that the sponge Dylan copies form and structure of the age-old folk song “Who Killed Cock Robin?”, just as he also used “Lord Randall” as a template for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “The Ballad Of Peter Amberly” for “The Ballad Of Donald White” (as for “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”) – it’s a fruitful, grateful and apparently also inspiring technique of songwriting.
But Delawarean Donald Sauter points to a much more likely source, to a children’s rhyme of the nineteenth-century writer Lydia Maria Child: “Who Stole The Bird’s Nest?” from 1865. The similarities are striking indeed:
To-whit! to-whit! to-whee!
Will you listen to me?
Who stole four eggs I laid,
And the nice nest I made?
Not I, said the cow, moo-oo!
Such a thing I’d never do.
I gave you a wisp of hay,
But did not take your nest away;
Not I, said the cow, moo-oo!
Such a thing I’d never do.
Now, what do you think?
Who stole a nest away
From the plum-tree to-day?
Not I, said the dog, bow-wow!
I wouldn’t be so mean, I vow.
I gave some hairs the nest to make,
But the nest I did not take;
Not I, said the dog, bow-wow!
I would not be so mean, I vow.
(… and then, just like with Dylan, three more similar couplets, alternated with the chorus).
The Bard extracts details, such as names and remarkable quotes, simply from the newspaper. But the greatest, timeless power of the song is in the find as to elevate this single, individual incident to a symptom of a social malformation, transcending the anecdotal – just like “Only A Pawn In Their Game” does, and “The Death Of Emmett Till” too.
Unlike in Andorra, Dylan does not opt for bloody suspense, but for legal-psychological tension. Davey Moore has already died, it has been in all the newspapers and it still exercises minds. The narrator Dylan therefore cannot use that dramatic dénouement for the suspense, like in, for example, “John Brown” or in “Seven Curses”. Instead, he suggests solving the guilt question, choosing repetition to build up the tension.
In each of six couplets a new suspect speaks. From the third verse at the latest, the tension develops: the listener expects the dénouement, the unmasking of the Real Culprit in the next verse. The referee, the audience, the manager, the gamblers, the sensation journalist and the opponent – however, they can all explain why they cannot be blamed.
In addition, the poet Dylan partly opts for wording and arguments that are almost literally in the newspaper. Opponent and winner Sugar Ramos, for example, in the Sports Illustrated of April 1, 1963, so eleven days before Dylan will sing the song for the first time:
“I did not want to hurt Moore,” Ramos said. “In the ring the fighters are partners. They put on the match. Not to hurt or kill, but to show skill and win the challenge. After the fight my opponent is my brother. But this tragedy is a thing all fighters must live with. It might have been me who was badly injured. Knowing that it could happen, I accept it, and perhaps so did Moore. Perhaps yesterday was his destiny and mine some other day.”
… which the poet transposes to:
Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
It was destiny, it was God’s will
Wryly enough, the words that the poet puts into the mouth of a sensation journalist, there’s just as much danger in a football game paraphrase a statement made by the victim. Less than a year before this, in April 1962, boxer Benny Paret died after his lost fight against Emile Griffith. In the ensuing debate about the dangers of boxing, Sugar Ramos is quoted saying: no one stops the Indy 500 when racing drivers get killed.
That equally tragic, fatal boxing fight has probably already sown the seeds for Dylan’s “Davey Moore”. Gil Turner, singer-songwriter and editor of Broadside, immediately processes that earlier tragedy into one of his best-known songs, “Benny ‘Kid’ Paret” and publishes it barely a week after Paret’s death in the mid-April edition of Broadside, the amateurishly stenciled Greenwich Village folkies’ club magazine that was the first to celebrate Dylan’s talent. Gil Turner, for example, is also the first citizen of the Earth to play “Blowin’ In The Wind” in public (in Gerde’s Folk City on April 16, 1962, the same evening Dylan completes the song) and also the first to record it (with his The New World Singers).
His influence on Dylan is apparent not only by the choice of subject, but also by the music behind “Benny ‘Kid’ Paret”; that is the age-old “The Ballad Of Peter Amberly”, the same music that Dylan will use in turn for “The Ballad Of Donald White”. He also inspires another Greenwich Village celebrity, Phil Ochs, who presents his song about this second boxing tragedy just before Dylan: “Davey Moore”.
So: three songwriters in Greenwich Village who process a boxing tragedy into songs between April ’62 and April ’63.
Phil Ochs opts for an epic, narrative ballad. In the first line Davey Moore sets off, in the last line he dies. Along the way Ochs does not spare with melodrama (“His wife begged and pleaded, you have to leave this game” and “the struggle of two men facing hell”) and caricatural, simple character sketches (‘The money-chasing vultures were waiting for their share” and “hate drives men insane”), interrupted three times by a little imposing chorus:
And thousands gave a roar when Davey Moore walked in
Another man to beat, another purse to win
And all along the ringside, a sight beyond compare
Gil Turner’s ballad is more intelligent. Seven four-line couplets, cyclical structure. The first three verses tell the rise and fall of Paret, then Turner leaves the private and a change to contemplative, universal views follows, such as the fourth verse:
There’s danger on the ocean where the waves roll mountain high
There’s danger on the battlefield where angry bullets fly.
There’s danger in the boxing ring for death is waiting there
Watching for a killing through the hot and smoky air.
… and the smart, Dylanesque sixth verse with the bitter conclusion:
You’ve heard about your Romans, long many years ago
Crowding big arenas just to see the slaves’ blood flow
There’s been lots of changes since those days and now we’re civilized
Our gladiators kill with gloves instead of swords and knives
The final couplet varies on the first verse, bringing it home again, making the song a beautiful, rounded whole.
But Gil Turner also falls short in comparison to the captivating power of Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, thanks to Dylan’s exceptional talent for drama, to his skills to integrate Brechtian stage techniques in his poetry. He brings the main characters back to archetypes (“The Referee”, “The Gambling Man”), they speak curtly, in blunt and thus provocative, clear monologues, which hold the public’s attention. Moreover, Dylan avoids the pitfall of becoming academic (like Turner) and, unlike Phil Ochs, he has an exceptional poetic instinct. Dylan would not produce a laborious verse like
For the fighters must destroy as the poets must sing
As the hungry crowd must gather for the blood upon the ring
… and Phil Ochs will probably be jealous of the deceptive simplicity and brutal poetic power of a fragment like
We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death,
We just meant to see some sweat,
There ain’t nothing wrong in that.
… just as neither Ochs nor Turner have the flair to elevate up to chorus a syntactic mess, but rhythmically direct hit like
Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?
Topical, however, the song remains, despite all its timeless power and transcendent literary value. It simply is a song about a single incident and a single individual boxer. The tragic death of Davey Moore and the historical fact that Nobel Prize winner Dylan has written about him do guarantee a place in the history books, the song itself is already covered in dust. Dylan himself never looks back at it, and after a short popularity (Pete Seeger, 1963), his colleagues also stay away – there are hardly any covers.
The two exceptions are truly exceptional, though: in 2005, BoomBox, the thoroughly musical duo from Muscle Shoals, makes an extremely funky, irresistible adaptation of the now antique song, with all the emphasis on the rhythmic power, of course (on Visions Of Backbeat, 2005).
Slightly more loyal, but still distinctive and nevertheless particularly attractive is the veteran “RSM”, the godfather of home recording, the versatile, tireless phenomenon R. Stevie Moore from Nashville who in 2018 has to enlist the help of his fans to craft a somewhat reliable discography on Wikipedia. Around 400 albums, in any case. At the end of the 1980s, the multi-instrumentalist produced a rather lurid and at the same time weirdly exuberant cover of “Who Killed Davey Moore?” – Twin Peaks meets Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, something like that.
Stevie Moore is, by the way, not related to Davey Moore. He is the son of Bob Moore though, Elvis’ bass player on the Dylan cover “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and moreover: he can be heard on six songs from Dylan’s Self Portrait. Unfortunately not in Dylan’s version of “The Boxer” – that would have rounded the circle perhaps a bit too nicely.
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