Professor Nick Groom: Nick Cave and the Murder Ballad Tradition

Today was another of those productive days that was not necessarily productive in relation to my course. However, I did go through my old lecture notes, typed a few out into my laptop, looked at the viability of starting a new university magazine alongside others on my course, and looked at possible gap years in South America and Asia. But, as always, this comparatively menial level of interest was superseded by Prof. Nick Groom’s lecture on the relationship between Nick Cave, and the ancient murder ballad tradition.

Professor Nick Groom (1)

“Death is the end- or is it?”

Essentially then, the murder ballad is obsessed with the physical end of life, and tends to position itself on the brink of the mortal and the immortal and immortal world. The most striking aspect of the murder ballad, at least in my opinion, is it’s obsession with the total, minute description of brutality of murder in the middle ages, detailing public hangings and castration with the enthusiasm of one reviewing a theatre production. The violation of the body is laid out in graphic detail and unravelled in front of the reader. This exposes almost the nature of the innermost self.

Nick Cave’s O’Malley’s Bar is one his most memorable ballads; in this, the killer speaks directly to us and addresses the idea of direct meaning, looking at observational realism and the bestial sounds that are incomparable to human sounds. He gives us protracted dreamlike precision when speak of ordering a drink. The ample detail is common of the ballad tradition; the disembodied protagonist represents self alienation, as well as being physically destroyed. This could be the executioner style discussed. The killer sings; he is composing his ballad in the very instance of murder.  He gives these minute instances in accounts, alongside the minute events of life, such as coughing. This resolves the gap between representation and reality; this identification is perhaps related to catching sight of oneself in a mirror. In the end, the bar is surrounded by the police; his body becomes his own again, and he has an epiphany of realising his own identity. The lyrics of the song have many murder ballad motifs; although ingenious devices of psychological description are implemented when describing himself in relation to the world. He is also engaged in a theological perspective, engaged in freewill thought; the killer’s will seem malleable; he never finishes counting the victims. The law takes over once the ballad finishes; this represents huge progression in the ballad tradition; earlier ballads never involve the legal system.

The crime writing that evolved into being in the 18th and 19th century took on many attributes of the murder ballads, in particular, the disembowelment of the human as a whole. They complete scenes of crimes form a kind of haunted space, similar to that involved in post structuralism, and the concept of the ghosts of meaning. The excessive analysis and description within crime writing created almost the possibility of too much meaning; urban spaces were being analysed and controlled within the crime novel, as opposed to the more natural environments of rural areas which are more affected by weather and agricultural factors. The man-made, artificial nature of the city provides a metaphor for the man-made, artificial nature of the public execution; it is too planned, and too staged for it to be anything other than a tangible kind of toy town.

Physical occupation in the ballads is particularly important in the literary world. Souvenir ballads were sold at public hangings; these were extremely popular. A whole culture was invested in on the ballad tradition; they would describe and make an account of the crimes and confessions of the condemned. The vast majority of killers had simply fallen foul with the bloody code, and only ten percent of hangings were actually those of murderers. The gallows scaffold at Tyburn was like a stage; the condemned dressed up and offered his final thoughts, which were usually transcribed on his final day. In many ways, the condemned were the living epitome of the morality tale. Large crowds tended to drink, sing, and mix with the criminal and prostituted classes. These ‘festivals’ became notorious for pickpocketing. The hangings therefore could be considered a sacrificial ritual; they are therefore a medium of the truth, and the ultimate nature of the courts and justice system.

The courts and administration highlighted the severity of reality. The gallows were a kind of portal; they were on the brink of reality. The expelled fluids of the hanged man were deemed to have magical properties, and mandrake were deemed to grow underneath. In theory then there is no limit and sacrificial logic is never-ending. Reality is here masked by spectacle and representation.

An interesting progression to note is that of the morality of the murder ballad; originally, and in its purest form, there is no morality; it is amoral in the sense that there is rarely any sense of repentance or justice, for example in the tale of O’Malley’s Bar. However Nick Cave moves away from this; his ballads end at the time when the crime is discovered, symbolised by a villager for example finding the bodies, or a police siren sounding in the background. This introduces a previously unexplored element of the murder ballad: justice. This also serves to widen the text to include other elements of social interaction, and so places the ultimate result in the hands of the legal system. In early ballads, especially those depicting Robin Hood, there is no justice and ultimately the perpetrator of such crimes is romanticized and hailed as a hero of folklore; again, consider the progression of the legend of Robin Hood from an evil and murderous killer to the hero that he is hailed as today. The characters of early ballads were allowed to almost run free; pillage, rape and even cannibalism being central themes in the old murder ballad.

Nick Cave also tends to narrow the difference between the protagonist and the speaker, and the first person is often used within the narrative. This creates a haunting effect; the idea of a person describing his or her own death. This also relates to the death story, which was often used alongside the original murder ballads; the death story is often someone describing their own death, or sang about it in the same sense. This essentially creates the effect of being completely disconnected from one’s own body.

The popularity of Nick Cave’s album may have been based around the terrorist culture that existed at the time, for example the Dunblane Primary School, and OJ Simpson’s murder of his wife and her associate. This possibly led to the success of the album, and the revival of a tradition that had been somewhat obscured over recent years.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture, especially because Prof. Nick Groom gives a paper in a rather organised and logical fashion; something that appeals rather well to an excessive note taker such as myself. I hope that next term, or in my second year I get to take some of his modules, if only to listen to Spinal Tap before every lecture.