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October 17, 2005

Following the Path to the Red Roses:

Murder as a Failed Attempt at Integration with Society

In the late 1980’s, Ted Bundy, a serial killer awaiting death on Florida’s Death Row, gave

an extraordinary set of interviews revealing in the third person how and why he committed the

murders. On the murder of Roberta Parks, who he transported several hundred miles before

murdering and deposing of her, he speculates that he transported her due to indecision and a

conflict “between that part of him that thought it was necessary to kill his victims, versus the part

that did not—that found it to be extremely reprehensible, disgusting” (Michaud, 102-103).

Bundy illuminates his double-consciousness, perhaps even strong enough in his case to be called

multiple personas. On one hand, he was acutely aware of and desired to fulfill societal norms.

Yet on the other hand, he felt a compulsion to act out against the bounds of these norms and to

kill his victims. Understanding why criminals deviate from established social norms constitutes

a central concern to police detectives, but a fascination with the phenomena of murder pervades

the general public too. What gives rise to this compulsion to kill? Bundy speculates that “It was

the possession of this desired thing, which was, in itself, -- the very act of assuming possession

was a very antisocial act – was giving expression to this person’s need to seize something that

was … highly valued, at least on the surface, by society.” (Michaud, 200-201). It seems then that

for Bundy, murder is not the act in and of itself, but rather a means of satisfying an internal

craving, a strong desire to become a part of mainstream society by forcefully taking possession

of something or someone who belonged to society.

Murder ballads also attempt to formulate an understanding of the phenomena of murder.

The persistence of murder ballads as an art form points to an enduring demand in society to

comprehend such antisocial acts. However, even the setting and premises of ballads themselves

point to the speculation involved in simulating these “fantasy” murders. Murders occur

primarily away from the public eye, and leave no witnesses except the murderer himself, who

may not be considered a reliable source. Songwriters, then, attempt the impossible, to analyze

and comprehend the criminal psyche with extremely limited concrete information. By analyzing

murder ballads, we in effect look at murder as seen through society’s lens. What we can glean

from murder ballads is not a definitive answer on why murderers commit the atrocities they do,

but rather what society believes motivates their actions.

“Banks of the Ohio,” born as a part of the oral tradition and recorded in 1938 by the

Monroe Brothers, follows the murder ballad “formula” that characterizes many of the older

murder ballads. The narrator asks his “love” to take a walk with him, hinting at a possible

marriage or proposal hovering in the air, yet by the third stanza, he murders her. In fact, the text

contains many other disturbing inconsistencies. The narrator asks to talk “about our wedding

day” (Monroe Brothers, ln 4) before his love has assented to be his bride. His diction implies,

furthermore, that she has already denied him the pleasure, or may very likely do so: “Only say

that you’ll be mine” (Monroe Brothers, ln 5). The narrator also awkwardly refers to himself in

both the first and third person. When he speaks of his love for his lady, he addresses himself as

“I”, but when referring to the man who committed the crime, he uses the pronoun “he”:

“I was coming home ‘tween twelve and one

thinking of what he had done

he’d murdered the only girl I loved

because she would not marry me.” (Monroe Brothers, lns 13-16)

The songwriter may have chosen to use both pronouns to highlight the conflicting desires, or

even alternate personalities such as those described by Bundy. The “I” respects social norms,

and tries to disassociate himself with the “he,” the monster who murdered his true love. In this

way, the murderer insinuates that he is not to blame; in fact, he is twice the victim: he loses his

true love and also must take the legal consequences for her murder. Rather, he pushes the blame

on her, claiming that she was murdered because “she would not marry [him]” (Monroe Brothers,

ln 20).

By attributing his actions to his passionate love and her rejection of him, and not

reminding the audience of what “he had done” (Monroe Brothers, ln 14), the narrator-murderer

also builds sympathy for his case. He asks sympathy because his crime, though in a sense

willful, was governed by a disease of his mind, by factors outside of his control. He “was

coming home ‘tween twelve and one” (Monroe Brothers, ln 13), meaning that he has committed

the action in the past, and now stands at the bridge between the old day and the new. He is

“thinking of what he had done,” (Monroe Brothers, ln 14) so he feels something about his

actions. He goes on to define the feeling as remorse, both at loss, but also rejection. He feels no

guilt. “He” murdered the only girl that “I” loved. “He” is the criminal. He asks that the

audience not condemn the Jekyll as well as the Hyde.

The Monroe Brothers use the first person narration to allow us to enter the mind of the

murderer and see the criminal act from his viewpoint. Why did their murderer kill his “loved”

one? In his own words, he desires the woman he kills intensely: “only say that you’ll be mine”

(Monroe Brothers, ln 5, 13, 21, 29). Although this seems on the surface to be a cliché expressing

the highest romantic feelings, it is also a demand for license to possess. He wants her, and he

wants to have her in a socially acceptable way. His penchant to belong to society is evident in

the terms in which he seems to court her. He wants to take her for a walk; he want so to marry

her; he “loves” her. However, when she rejects him, he literally takes what he can get: “he

dragged her down to the riverbank” (Monroe Brothers, ln 10), forcing her to physically submit to


In a modern murder ballad, “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” Nick Cave devises a way to

give voice to both sides of the murder—perpetrator and victim. Cave juxtaposes two different

narratives voices to offer a better sense of what truly happened and what both sides were

thinking as the course of events progressed. As in the “Banks of the Ohio,” the man befriends

the woman, seems to fall in love with her and court her. However, this ideal romance is

complicated by the fact that he suddenly and unexpectedly murders her at the end of the poem.

How does this happen? The male narrator makes the two of them sound like lovers bonded at

first sight: “From the first day I saw her I knew she was the one” (Cave, ln 5). According to his

narrative, they make doe-eyes at each other, while he praises the color of her rosy red lips and

compares them to the color of blood. He does not seem to view this give-away as a faux pas,

but continues to sing to her beauty. On the second day, he brings her “a flower” (Cave, ln 17)

which in her narration, we learn is a rose, and titles her “more beautiful than any woman I’d

seen” (Cave, ln 18). He prompts her, asking if she knew of the roses that she constantly

reminded her off. His narration stays innocent until he takes her down the river on the “third

day” (Cave, ln 29), which he calls her “last day” (Cave, ln 33).

The actual events seem to be told much more directly and honestly from the woman,

Eliza Day’s narrative. She draws attention strictly to concrete events, without emotional mush,

and lets the events can speak for themselves. She chooses, for example, to say that “he knocked

on my door” (Cave, ln 9), indicating that he, from the very beginning, held both the reins and

ought to hold the blame for her murder. She accentuates the fact that she was “trembling” (Cave,

ln 10), supporting a variety of conjectures as to her emotional state when he stepped into her

bubble, her home, her safe-zone. He comforts her, but also induces tears to run down her face.

Her narration unveils a dark, loving, but also foreboding sexual tenor. She claims he was

her “first man” (Cave, ln 11) as in her first sexual partner. He knocked on her door, and entered

the room called her vagina. Her trembling and tears are over the pain of the first time, since he

has broken down the physical barriers to her body. On the second “day,” but perhaps more aptly

in the second phase of their relationship, he asks for her to shed her mental and emotional walls,

to let him in further as he continues to penetrate her body. He asks her to divulge her

weaknesses, “will you [she] give me your loss and your sorrow?” (Cave, ln 22), but the answer is

a nod as she lies on the bed. Sex is no longer hidden in the stanza, but strongly implied. On the

third day, the singular explicit and perhaps least exciting sexual advance occurs—they kiss. And

he kills her.

The sexual tenor may in fact, reflect much more than increasing sexual intimacy. Cave

chooses to situate his murder within the context of three days, a very short period of time for

anyone to fall in love or to even become sexually involved. He may have chosen the time frame

for lyrical purposes, but perhaps he is also suggesting a pressing sense of urgency in the

murderer. What compulsion the murderer feels to become closer with his victim drives him to

make such rapid advances on her. In addition, the urgency may also suggest that what he

receives from her at the end of each day is not enough. He must take more and more. He is not

content with having physical relations with her. He is not sated by being allowed into her mind

and her thoughts. He wants more, and he kills her to satisfy his craving, but does taking

possession of her life satisfy him?


Answering this question is complicated by the fact that the male narrator’s narrative

seems unreliable. In fact, it seems almost impossible to decipher his motive in killing her. His

narration is littered with clichéd images of love (“From the first day I saw her I knew she was the

one (Cave, ln 5); “She was more beautiful than any woman I’d seen” (Cave, ln 18)). In fact, his

language implies that he knows what conventional love looks like, and he is able to reproduce a

convincing replica. In the interest of preserving this image, he even skips over the entire murder.

According to his narration, he “kissed her goodbye, [he] said, all beauty must die / and lent down

and planted a rose between her teeth” (Cave, ln 35-36). Nowhere does he take responsibility for

killing her; her death seems to be only an aesthetic completion of their affair. Can it be that his

only motive is to be the executor of her fate as a “beauty”? It seems unlikely that in the balance

between breaking the strongest social conventions, conventions which he parades throughout his

narrative, and performing almost a sacrificial rite-like murder, he chooses murder. What force

within him, then, pushes him toward murder?

Perhaps the force is his desire to be included as a part of society. Suppose we take his

narration at face value, that his words are heartfelt. Then judging by the gap between his

interpretation of the event leading up to the murder and his victim’s, he must live a far distance

mentally from the rest of society while his initiating such a relationship with his victim shows

that he seeks to achieve and clearly honors ideal love as defined by society. Problematically, he

seems incapable of emotionally connecting with his victim on a concrete level. Although they

have sexual relations and she shares with him her “loss and … sorrow” (Cave, ln 22), he never

shows that he comes to a deeper understanding of her person or shares with her his loss and

sorrow. His appreciation of her and connection with her stays at the surface level. His

murdering her can be viewed as a tortured attempt to get closer to her and to the society that she

embodies for him.

Perhaps he simply employs his words to charm the audience. Although this scenario is

complicated by the lack of reliable information on his true motives, it seems that he clearly

recognizes ideal societal values enough even in this case to be able to parade them. By

attempting to hide his true motives, he reveals that he understands his deviance from societal

norms as pathological. Perhaps his interaction with her, then, is still a failed attempt at

integration with society, since his recognition of his own deviance is also recognition of her

belonging to mainstream society. He asks if “[he] show[s] [her] the roses will [she] follow?”

(Cave, ln 24), in essence, asking her to follow him onto his turf and perhaps even his mind.

“What a complicated explanation—knowing that any explanation at this level trying to

explain human nature is not going to be totally understandable to anyone…The act of killing—

we could not expect it to be the goal. Remember, it was the possession of this desired thing”

(Michaud, p 200-201). Murder, as it appears in murder ballads, does not seem to simply be a

singular stroke of ill will, but rather the physical precipitate of psychological issues.

Consistently, songwriters portray murderers (and perhaps rightfully so) as social deviants who at

once recognize societal values and rules but for mysterious reasons cannot adhere to those

norms. If Cave’s piece were missing its female narrator, the piece would be oddly lopsided, and

Cave’s murderer would appear to be as devastated and strangely charming as the Monroe

Brothers’ murderer. In real-life murders, however, the dead woman cannot come back to tell her

side of the story, and we are left with the twisted, often inconsistent or incomplete sequence of

events from which to ruminate about motive. Murder ballads’ valiant attempts at trying to

understand murder may reflect a more general unease with this inexplicable social phenomenon,

with a group of people living in society but thinking outside society’s bounds, people who

recognize societal values but whose desires to attain those values drives them to commit the

ultimate crime to set them apart.


Nick Cave. “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” Murder Ballads. Mute/Reprise, 1996.

Monroe Brothers. “Banks of the Ohio.” The Essential Bill Monroe & Monroe Brother. RCA,
1997; original recording, 1938.

Stephen G. Michaud & Hugh Aynesworth, Ted Bundy: The Death Row Interviews (New York:
Penguin Putnam, 2000), pp 102-102.