"All Things Move Toward Their Ends": The Murder Ballads of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
The cover for the album Murder Ballads (https://genius.com/albums/Nick-cave-and-the-bad-seeds/Murder-ballads)
I was recently listening to one of my favourite albums again over this past week. Murder Ballads, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, is an album of ten songs that all describe various types of murder, with moods ranging from gallows humour to more serious and melancholic tones. I have always been interested in any sort of art that deals with uncomfortable topics - a reason why horror is one of my favourite genres.
Ballads have a history of being a part of the oral tradition due to the age of the form, as well as a scarcity of printing facilities in Western America, where the murder ballad genre expanded to from Europe with settlers. As a result, "true western ballads of murder ... have been entirely lost, or are known only to the children of those who knew and sang them" (Burt 263). The album Murder Ballads revisits this tradition of Western ballads, which have served as a "bedrock of contemporary American music" (qtd. in Newman 97). The album looks back to these influences and pays tribute to them, while simultaneously reinventing the genre in some of the band's interpretations of classic murder ballads.
In the oral traditions of ballads, many contained repetition of a phrase or tune in between stanzas in order to aid with memory known as "refrains", which divide segments of the story ("The Ballad"). Even the original songs on Nick Cave's album all contain some sort of refrain - whether in voice or by instrument. For example, although "Song of Joy" does not contain a vocal refrain, the piano does repeat 4 bars of the same notes over and over between the stanzas.
Death and murder has always been a fascinating subject - Olive Burt describes the custom of "print[ing] up broadsides or penny sheets telling the story of particularly interesting local crimes ... peddled to the crowd that gathered to witness the execution of the criminal" (263). Well known Western ballads such as "Jesse James" and "Stagolee" recount the actions of famous murderers, although the Jesse James ballad does seem to imagine him as more of a Robin Hood figure. In the modern day, death and crime remains to be a point of interest for many - the current popularity of "true crime" podcasts, TV, and YouTube videos demonstrates that.
The album contains some originals as well as re-imaginings of well-known songs (for example,"Stagger Lee" or "Stagolee", "Henry Lee" is a reworking of a Scottish ballad"Young Hunting", etc.). One of the most interesting tracks on the album is "Stagger Lee", Nick Cave's version of a popular folk song (done by other artists such as Cab Calloway and Woody Guthrie). This song is fascinating for its history in the Black community - John Lomax, a musicologist, received a transcription of the song in 1911 from a woman claiming that "this song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters" ("A Brief History of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons"). It has been a prominent piece in the American music landscape since then, done in many different genres. I am particularly interested in the version on this album due to the introduction of homoerotic themes in the song, which are not present in the original or early versions of the song. The 1928 John Hurt version of the song is as follows:
"Police officer, how can it be? You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, “Please don’t take my life, I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife” That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
“What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife? You done stole my Stetson hat, I’m bound to take your life” That bad man, cruel Stack O’ Lee
…with the forty-four When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin’ down on the floor That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee
“Gentleman’s of the jury, what do you think of that? Stack O’ Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat” That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
And all they gathered, hands way up high, at twelve o’clock they killed him, they’s all glad to see him die That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee"
In almost all versions of "Stagger Lee", a Stetson hat is mentioned, a Colt .44, and the victim, Billy. Although this version mentions Stagger Lee being charged and sentenced to death, the actual Lee Shelton the song is modelled after, did not face death. There was a bar fight in 1895 in which he killed his acquaintance, Billy Lyons. He was paroled, then eventually returned to jail and died of tuberculosis ("A Brief History of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons").
In the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds version, he makes the classic references, but changes some things:
"It was back in '32 when times were hard He had a Colt .45 and a deck of cards Stagger Lee
He wore rat-drawn shoes and an old stetson hat Had a '28 Ford, had payments on that Stagger Lee"
Here, Stagger Lee owns a Colt .45 rather than the .44, and the time period is updated to a slightly more modern one (1932 rather than the late 1800s). Later in the song, after murdering the bartender, Stagger Lee is propositioned by a prostitute. He rebuffs her offer, instead suggesting that he would rather have sex with her boyfriend, "Billy Dilly". I am hesitant to copy the exact lyrics here due to their...slightly inappropriate nature, but if you were curious, they are easily found online. This, in addition to the video for the song, which contains a group of men wearing very tight clothing and dancing provocatively, adds a whole other layer to the song. To my knowledge, no versions of "Stagger Lee" have added this element of homo-eroticism before. I believe that this is done as a way to subvert the previous version of the folk songs that often present Stagger Lee as some sort of bastion of masculinity, or what Williams describes as a "fetishistic vision of extreme masculinity" (89). Nick Cave takes a folk song that has turned Stagger Lee into a type of hero, and instead shows his random acts of violence (killing the bartender earlier in the song over a small argument), and puts his masculinity into question by adding the homoerotic elements. This is not to say that I, or Nick Cave, sees homosexuality as being "un-masculine". I am simply recognizing that this viewpoint does, unfortunately, exist, and so by showing Stagger Lee's sexual interest in men, it puts to question his masculinity, removing him from the model role of masculinity that the figure has previously occupied.
There's a lot to this album and I could analyze its lyrics for pages and pages. If you have an hour, give it a listen. Although not everything is particularly pleasurable to listen to (some of the songs sound quite frantic), it is a really fascinating dive into the genre.
"The Ballad." Connections: A Hypertext Resource for Literature. https://eriksimpson.sites.grinnell.edu/Connections/Poetry/Forms/ballad1.html Accessed 18 Oct 2022.
Burt, Olive. "The Minstrelsy of Murder." Western Folklore, vol. 17, no. 4, 1958, pp. 263-272. https://doi.org/10.2307/1496190.
Marshall, Matt. "A Brief History of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons."American Blues Scene, 9 May 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20140222152357/http://www.americanbluesscene.com/2011/05/a-brief-history-of-stagger-lee-and-billy-lyons/. Accessed 19 Oct 2022.
Newman, Daniel. "Murder Ballads: Nick Cave and His Approach to Killing in Song." Musicology Australia, vol. 39, no. 2, 2017, pp. 96-115. https://doi.org/10.1080/08145857.2017.1393149.
"Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Murder Ballads Album Lyrics." Lyrics on Demand, https://www.lyricsondemand.com/n/nickcaveandthebadseedslyrics/murderballadsalbumlyrics.html. Accessed 19 Oct 2022.
Williams, Duncan."Stagger Lee: How Violent Nostalgia Created an American Folk Song Standard."Journal of Extreme Anthropology, vol. 2, no. 1, 2018, pp. 89-87. https://doi.org/10.5617/jea.5546.