Friday, February 2, 2018

Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore?" Triggers Thoughts About Football Violence

This past week I watched the Bob Dylan documentary The Other Side of the Mirror, which captures his performances from 1963 to 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival. I found the power of his song "Who Killed Davey Moore" to be quite arresting, the refrain each time delivered with pointed power.

For those unfamiliar with the backstory, Davey Moore was a champion featherweight boxer who died after a fight with an upcoming Cuban boxer named Sugar Ramos in March, 1963. The incident triggered debates about the morality of boxing. Folksinger Phil Ochs wrote a song titled "Davey Moore" that criticized the sport of boxing and the people involved. Dylan's version took the song to a different level. Recorded but never released on vinyl, it was included in his Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991 in 1991. His October 1964 performance appears on his Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall, released in 2004. I found the Newport Folk Festival version on YouTube, though it may get removed for copyright reasons by the time you read this.

I'd already been thinking again about the violence inflicted in many professional sports, triggered in part by the hit Rob Gronkowski took in the AFC playoff game two weeks ago. Gronkowski doesn't blame Barry Church for slamming into him helmet to helmet. It's part of the game. But some questions still hang out there, which we will get to in a sec.

After watching the film about Dylan at Newport I was moved to want to find the song again online. The website I found it at did something interesting. In boxing each round is three minutes, so they had the tenth and final round of the Moore-Ramos fight playing in the margin while the song was being sung through streaming media. It added a dimension to the song. Davey Moore was standing when the fight ended, wobbly, apparently not aware that he would soon be dead.

IN 2016 the Duluth Art Institute displayed a exhibition titled Team Spirit featuring thought-provoking work by Jen Dietrich and her former student Robb Quisling, now himself an art teacher. One portion of the exhibit addressed the issue of concussions in football, a hot topic at the time, an issue that had come under journalist scrutiny after San Diego Chargers' Junior Seau's 2012 suicide. This is an especially interesting and thought-provoking set of pieces with some clever juxtapositions.

At issue was the long-term consequences of repeated concussions. Brain scans and modern medicine are showing us what most anyone knows who has heard the slurred language of an old boxer.

The song's construction is in the classic form of many folk songs. In "The Times They Are A-Changin'" each verse is directed to a different audience and how they might best respond because "the times they are a-changin'. The first first is general, "Come gather 'round people." In the second Dylan talks to writers and critics, in the third he addresses political leaders and in the fourth he speaks to parents whose children are responding to the times with the final verse being a summing up.

Likewise, in a variation of the form, "Hard Rain" begins with the question, "Where have you been my blue-eyed son?" The son lists all the places, and is then asked in successive verses, "What did you see?" and "What did you hear?" and "Who did you meet?" culminating in the question, "What'll you do now?"  In the end, the narrator sings, "And I'll know my song well before I start singing, It's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard rain's a gonna fall."

And so we turn to Who Killed Davey Moore, which is a reconfigured variation on the format of Who Killed Cock Robin, with more elaboration. In Dylan's song each of the constituencies is asked, "Who killed Davey Moore, why an what's the reason for?" In other words, who is responsible. First the referee gives his defense, then the crowd, his manager, the gambling man, the sportswriter and finally, the man who laid him low.

Here are the lyrics.

Who Killed Davey Moore?

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

"Not I, " says the referee,
"Don't point your finger at me.
I could've stopped it in the eighth
An' maybe kept him from his fate,
But the crowd would've booed, I'm sure,
At not gettin' 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."

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

"Not us, " says the angry crowd,
Whose screams filled the arena loud.
"It's too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight.
We didn't mean for him t' meet his death,
We just meant to see some sweat,
There ain't nothing wrong in that.
It wasn't us that made him fall.
No, you can't blame us at all."

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

"Not me, " says his manager,
Puffing on a big cigar.
"It's hard to say, it's hard to tell,
I always thought that he was well.
It's too bad for his wife an' kids he's dead,
But if he was sick, he should've said.
It wasn't me that made him fall.
No, you can't blame me at all."

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

"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.
It wasn't me that made him fall.
No, you can't blame me at all."

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

"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', "Fist fighting 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."

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

"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."
Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

Lyrics by Bob Dylan

As I watched a 22-year-old Bob Dylan perform this song, his manner of singing it and the power of the lyrics pummeled me like a flurry of punches. And I thought about each of the players in the song-saga: the referees, the fans, the coaches, the gamblers, the sportswriters and the defensive players who specialized in hard hits.

The verse on gamblers is interesting when you think about how Jimmy the Greek, a Las Vegas odds-maker, was embedded in the coverage on Monday Night Football for so many years. Howard Cosell's last book stated that a quarter of a trillion dollars was bet on football each year. That was a long time ago now, and may be half a trillion. Ever wonder how all those casinos were built in Vegas and Atlantic City?

A line from Ronnie Lott's book Total Impact came to mind when I thought about this song. Lott was a defensive safety who specialized in hard hits. Like many defenders their aim was to make receivers scared before they ever touched the ball because they were about to be slain. Lott wrote that as he hit an opponent "my eyes close, roll back into my head . . . snot sprays out of my nostrils, covering my mouth and cheeks." Slam, bam.

It was this kind of football that sportswriters like to see, so long as no one ended up in the hospital. But over time, players were indeed ending up in the hospital. At least eight have ended up int he morgue.

Here's the song.

I wanted to re-write this as follows...

Who Killed Junior Seau? Why is football a Sacred Cow?
Who Killed Junior Seau and what's the NFL doin' now?

If the Gronkowski hit were only an anomaly I suppose my concerns would then be less relevant. I know that this week's biggest NFL discussion topic had to do with what is or isn't a catch when a receiver fails to have control after hitting the ground. The rules need better defining so the refs get their calls right.

An article about the Davey Moore fight
NFL Players who have died by suicide.

Disclaimer: I grew up watching football on TV and playing football every day after school. We didn't wear pads or helmets and I never saw a concussion. A kid broke his leg once, and there were a few sprained ankles, but the game entertained primarily because of the strategy and finesse, the skills utilized. We were active and it kept us healthy.

EdNote: Top of page illustration by Ed Newman

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