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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
2 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
3 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
4 dragged her down to the riverbank” (Monroe Brothers, ln 10), forcing her to physically submit to him. 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,
5 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?
6 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
7 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,
8 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.
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