Mack the Knife: History of a Lovable Rogue
Coda Connections Feature - Summer 2016

​Most vocal tunes have a good marriage between music and lyrics - the style of the song supports the story the singer is trying to tell. A composer could write about a topic that's relevant to the audience--a favorite place, a special ability, a personal hero, a love infatuation, or even music itself--and they traditionally accompany that story with a good beat and a melody that sticks in your head. However, that's not always the case.

Mack the Knife is a popular tune, played in various styles and tempos throughout history, but it features a story about a serial murderer. The lyrics are not gratuitous, yet there's no mistaking when the singer belts out phrases about scarlet billows and oozing life. Why would someone do that? Why write about a killer, then lay it over an otherwise infectious beat and generally happy-sounding music? To answer that question, let's hop in the way-back machine and visit 1724 London.

Jack Sheppard was born into poverty, and began his young adult life as an apprentice carpenter. For a few years this worked out just fine, until he discovered alcohol and began spending time with "women of abandoned character." He took to stealing from client's houses, and over time managed to break out of various prisons four times-sometimes with accomplices, sometimes alone. The seeming ease of these escapes, plus his non-violent, charming nature and handsome looks, made him a notorious figure and a hero to the London working class. Sheppard was eventually caught a fifth time, convicted, and hanged after two years of criminal activity. He was 22. (For a more in-depth account of Jack's life, visit London Particulars.)

In 1728, the story of Sheppard's exploits inspired English poet and dramatist John Gay to write the first comic ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera. His
protagonist, womanizer Macheath, was a well-mannered pickpocket who stole from the rich, and the main thrust of the show was to make fun of government and the upper class. It became the first musical play to be performed in colonial New York, and George Washington allegedly enjoyed it.

Now skip ahead two centuries. The original play was revived during the 1920s, when the concept of the anti-hero was all the rage with the avant-garde movement. Poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht had it translated into German and in 1927 created Die Dreigroschenoper, or The Threepenny Opera, writing or adapting lyrics while composer Kurt Weill focused on the music. They changed the ballads to tangos and foxtrots, reflecting the more self-indulgent times. Also changed was our thieving protagonist, now a ruthless mugger and deviant criminal.

As the story goes, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, or The Ballad of Mack the Knife--composed in less than 24 hours--was added to the show at the last minute, thanks to lead tenor Harald Paulsen demanding a song to introduce his character, Mackie Messer ("Messer" is German for knife). Mack, while still charming, is a more intense and violent criminal than the petty thief from 200 years earlier, and the song introduces him as a thief, murderer, arsonist, and rapist.

The show premiered on August 31, 1928 and was an instant hit. According to the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, it was translated into 18 different languages and was performed more than 10,000 times throughout Europe over the next five years. The first English translation of Threepenny came to Broadway in 1933, closing after only 12 performances. However, at least eight English translations have been written since then.

In 1950, Marc Blitzstein began writing a cleaner adaptation of Mack that is probably the one you've heard before--the version without the stanzas about arson and rape. Louie Armstrong recorded it in 1956, bringing a jazzy version of the song to the public, but Bobby Darin saw more success from the tune than any other musician: his single was #1 on the Billboard charts for nine weeks in 1959, and it earned him a Grammy. In fact, his interpretation has
been described as "absurdly cheerful," which, along with each verse key moving up by a half step, makes the song an inspiring experience. Yes, it's still a
sinister subject, but you listen to it and suddenly dead bodies become no big deal.

Other vocal artists who have recorded Mack include Sonny Rollins, Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Ben Webster, The Doors, Frank Sinatra, Sting, Roger Daltry, Lyle Lovett, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Robbie Williams, Michael Buble, Rosemary Clooney, Lawrence Welk, and others.

The Shmoop Editorial Team sums up Mack's personality well: "You can't wait to meet this guy, but you don't want to meet this guy--especially not in a dark alley at night."

Len Morse
Trumpet, Percussion