The Meaning Behind Simon & Garfunkel’s Poignant Masterpiece “The Boxer”

Influential folk duo Simon & Garfunkel were still savoring the success of their latest single, “Mrs. Robinson,” when their track “The Boxer” was sent to radio stations and record shops. The stirring, narrative-driven tune became an anthem for anyone in a time of struggle.

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[RELATED: The Harmonious, Combative Story Behind the Songwriting Duo Simon & Garfunkel]

Since its initial release in 1969, “The Boxer” has earned its rightful place in music history and is often cited as one of the pair’s most impactful recordings. Now, let’s take a deep dive into the meaning behind “The Boxer” and how its lyrics continue to impact listeners today.

The Lyrics

With “The Boxer,” Paul Simon pens the story of a young man trying to get through the daily grind of living in New York City. After a brief introduction, the song describes the narrator’s life of poverty, along with his less-than-poetic description of sex workers and his interactions with them.

Asking only workman’s wages, I come looking for a job
But I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores on 7th Avenue
I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there, la-la-la-la-la-la-la

The next few lines find Simon describing the bleak realities of the character’s lonely life as they try to reach for undefined success that seems so far out of reach. He reflects on the harsh climate—in both literal and figurative sense—within the New York City landscape.

And I’m laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was gone
Goin’ home
Where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me
Leading me
Going home

In the song’s final verse, the narrator looks back on his life from afar. The pain and challenges he’s navigated through remain in his mind but no longer define him. Instead, “The Boxer” leaves those memories behind, opting to move forward toward a new day.

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains

The Meaning

The captivating and incomparable artistic lyricism of Paul Simon takes center stage in “The Boxer,” which separates each narrative chapter with the rousing repetition of “lie la lie, lie la lie” in each chorus.

In an interview with Playboy Magazine, Simon discussed the thoughts and experiences that inspired him to begin writing the lyrics to “The Boxer.”

“I think I was reading the Bible around that time,” he recalls. “That’s where I think phrases such as ‘workman’s wages’ came from, and ‘seeking out the poorer quarters’. That was biblical. I think the song was about me: everybody’s beating me up, and I’m telling you now I’m going to go away if you don’t stop.” 

The duo’s growing success also led to an increase in negative feedback, which was a shift that Simon felt was both jarring and somewhat refreshing.

“By that time we had encountered our first criticism,” he explains. “For the first few years, it was just pure praise. It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t strange creatures that emerged from England but just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock and roll. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! Maybe we weren’t even hippies!”

Although there have been many critical assessments about the song’s lyrical structure and theming, “The Boxer” has repeatedly reemerged into modern culture. Over the decades, an extensive list of artists have covered the song, including Waylon Jennings, Cake, and Mumford and Sons. 

In 2001, Simon chose to perform “The Boxer” during the first episode of Saturday Night Live since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The moving performance was seen as a tribute to victims and the strength of New York City residents, who kept moving forward during a time of immense trauma and grief.

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