Mack the Knife

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Mack the Knife
by Kurt Weill
Native nameDie Moritat von Mackie Messer
TextBertolt Brecht
Published31 August 1928 (1928-08-31)

"Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" (German: "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer") is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their 1928 music drama The Threepenny Opera (German: Die Dreigroschenoper). The song has become a popular standard recorded by many artists, including a US and UK number one hit for Bobby Darin in 1959.

The Threepenny Opera[edit]

A Moritat is a medieval version of the murder ballad performed by strolling minstrels. In The Threepenny Opera, the Moritat singer with his street organ introduces and closes the drama with the tale of the deadly Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, a character based on the dashing highwayman Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (who was in turn based on the historical thief Jack Sheppard). The Brecht-Weill version of the character was far more cruel and sinister and has been transformed into a modern antihero.

The play opens with the Moritat singer comparing Macheath (unfavorably) with a shark and then telling tales of his crimes: arson, robbery, rape, murder.

The song was a last-minute addition that was inserted before its premiere in 1928 because Harald Paulsen, the actor who played Macheath, demanded that Brecht and Weill add another number that would more effectively introduce his character.[1] However, Weill and Brecht decided the song should not be sung by Macheath himself, opting instead to write the song for a street singer in keeping with the Moritat tradition. At the premiere, the song was sung by Kurt Gerron, who played Police Chief Brown. Weill intended the Moritat to be accompanied by a barrel organ, which was to be played by the singer.[2] At the premiere, though, the barrel organ failed, and the pit orchestra (a jazz band) had to quickly provide the accompaniment for the street singer.[3]

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,
Und die trägt er im Gesicht.
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer,
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

And the shark, it has teeth,
And it wears them in the face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife can't be seen.[4]

French translation[edit]

The song was translated into French as "La complainte de Mackie" by André Mauprey and Ninon Steinhoff and popularized by Catherine Sauvage.[5]

1954 Blitzstein translation[edit]

"A Theme from The Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)"
Mack The Knife Coronet.jpg
Single by Louis Armstrong
B-side"Back O'Town Blues"
RecordedNew York City
28 September 1955[6]
LabelColumbia, Coronet
Songwriter(s)Kurt Weill
Bertolt Brecht
Marc Blitzstein (English lyrics)
Turk Murphy (arranger)

The song was introduced to American audiences in 1933 in the first English-language production of The Threepenny Opera. The English lyrics were by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky.[7] That production, however, was not successful, closing after a run of only ten days. In the best-known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of The Threepenny Opera, which played Off-Broadway for over six years,[8] the words are:

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight[9]

Blitzstein's translation provides the basis for most of the popular versions heard today, including those by Louis Armstrong (1955) and Bobby Darin (1959; Darin's lyrics differ slightly), and most subsequent swing versions. Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, the star of both the original 1928 German production and the 1954 Blitzstein Broadway version, was present in the studio during Armstrong's recording. He spontaneously added her name to the lyrics ("Look out, Miss Lotte Lenya"),[10] which already named several of Macheath's female victims. The Armstrong version was later used by Bobby Darin.

The final stanza – not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1931 film – expresses the theme and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.

1976 Manheim–Willett extension ("Moritat")[edit]

In 1976, a brand-new interpretation of "Mack the Knife" by Ralph Manheim and John Willett was used in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of The Threepenny Opera, starring Raul Julia as Macheath. This version, simply known as "Moritat", is an extension of the story with completely new lyrics that expound upon the tales of Macheath's trail of activity. Here is an excerpt:

See the shark with teeth like razors.
All can read his open face.
And Macheath has got a knife, but
Not in such an obvious place.

This version was performed by Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack of the 1994 film Quiz Show. Darin's version plays over the opening credits and Lovett's over the closing credits. This interpretation was recorded by Sting and Nick Cave in the late 1990s.

1994 translation[edit]

A much darker translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams into English was used for the 1994 Donmar Warehouse theatrical production in London. The new translation attempted to recapture the original tone of the song:

Though the shark's teeth may be lethal
Still you see them white and red
But you won't see Mackie's flick knife
Cause he slashed you and you're dead.

Popular song[edit]

"Mack the Knife"
Mack the Knife Bobby Darin.jpg
Single by Bobby Darin
from the album That's All
B-side"Was There a Call for Me"
ReleasedAugust 1959
RecordedDecember 19, 1958, at Fulton Studios, New York City
GenreTraditional pop, jazz
Length3:11 (Album version)
3:04 (Single version)
LabelAtco (U.S.)
London Records (UK)
Songwriter(s)Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht
Marc Blitzstein (English version)
Bobby Darin singles chronology
"Dream Lover"
"Mack the Knife"
"Beyond the Sea"

Dick Hyman recorded an instrumental version in 1955.[10] "Mack the Knife" was introduced to the United States hit parade by Louis Armstrong in 1955, but the song is most closely associated with Bobby Darin, who recorded his version at Fulton Studios on West 40th Street, New York City, on December 19, 1958 for his album That's All (with Tom Dowd engineering the recording). Even though Darin was reluctant to release the song as a single,[11] in 1959 it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Black Singles chart, and earned him two Grammy Awards, for Record of the Year and Best New Artist.[12][13][14] It was listed as a Cash Box Top 100 number one single in 1959 for eight weeks.[15] Dick Clark had advised Darin not to record the song because of the perception that, having come from an opera, it would not appeal to the rock and roll audience; he subsequently acknowledged his error.[16] Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with Quincy Jones on his L.A. Is My Lady album, called Darin's the "definitive" version.[10]

Bobby Darin took the song by the scruff of the neck and turned it into the swing classic widely known today. Unlike the Brecht-Weill original, which remains in the same key throughout, Darin's version changes key, chromatically, no fewer than five times, ratcheting up the tension. – Financial Times[17]

Billboard ranked this version as the No. 2 song for 1959.[18] Darin's version was No. 3 on Billboard's All Time Top 100.[19] In 2003, the Darin version was ranked #251 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list.[20] On BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, pop mogul Simon Cowell named "Mack the Knife" as "the best song ever made".[21] Darin's version of the song was featured in the films Quiz Show and What Women Want. Both Armstrong's and Darin's versions were inducted by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry in 2016.[22]

Ella Fitzgerald made a famous live recording in 1960 (released on Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife) in which, after forgetting the lyrics after the first stanza, she improvised new lyrics in a performance that earned her a Grammy Award.[23] Robbie Williams recorded the song on his 2001 album Swing When You're Winning.

Other notable versions include performances by Mark Lanegan, Dave Van Ronk, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Brian Setzer, Dr. John, King Kurt,[24] Kevin Spacey, David Cassidy (in At the Copa), Westlife, and Michael Bublé. Swiss band The Young Gods radically reworked the song in industrial style on their 1991 album The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill, while jazz legend Sonny Rollins recorded an instrumental version entitled simply "Moritat" in 1956. A 1959 instrumental performance by Bill Haley & His Comets was the final song the group recorded for Decca Records. Ray Conniff recorded a version for orchestra and chorus in 1962 for the album, The Happy Beat. Deana Martin recorded "Mack the Knife" on her second studio album, Volare, released in 2009 by Big Fish Records. Frank Sinatra added the song to his repertoire in 1984 in an arrangement by Frank Foster;[10] Sinatra and Jimmy Buffett recorded a duet of the song for Sinatra's final album Duets II (1994).

Salsa musician Rubén Blades recorded an homage entitled "Pedro Navaja" (Razor Pete).[25] Brazilian composer Chico Buarque, in his loose adaptation of Threepenny Opera (Ópera do Malandro), made two versions called "O Malandro" and "O Malandro № 2", with lyrics in Portuguese. Liberace performed the song in five styles: as originally written, in the style of the "Blue Danube Waltz", as a music box, in a bossa nova rhythm, and in what Liberace considered a popular American style, boogie-woogie.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Friedwald 2002, p. 79.
  2. ^ Farneth, David (2000). Kurt Weill: A Life in Pictures and Documents. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press. pp. 75–78. ISBN 0-87951-721-2.
  3. ^ Friedwald 2002, pp. 81–82.
  4. ^ Bernard N. Lee Jr (2017). Michele Barard (ed.). A Look Back in Time: Memoir of a Military Kid in the 50s. 2. Conyers, Georgia: Bernard N. Lee Jr. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-9995576-0-0.
  5. ^ "Song: La complainte de Mackie". Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  6. ^ Jos Willems (2006). All of Me: The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong. Scarecrow Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-8108-5730-8. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  7. ^ Threepenny Opera (Cochran/Krimsky) at the Internet Broadway Database
  8. ^ Threepenny Opera (Blitzstein) at the Internet Broadway Database
  9. ^ Louis Armstrong – Mack The Knife Lyrics,
  10. ^ a b c d "Mack the Knife – Sinatra Song of the Century #95" by Mark Steyn, 8 December 2015
  11. ^ Bobby Darin interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  12. ^ "2nd Annual GRAMMY Awards". November 28, 2017.
  13. ^ "That's All – Bobby Darin". AllMusic.
  14. ^ " 'Mack the Knife' by Bobby Darin",
  15. ^ "Cash Box Pop Singles – 1959", Cashbox
  16. ^ "Bobby Darin & Dick Clark".
  17. ^ Cheal, David (January 15, 2016). "The Life of a Song: 'Mack the Knife'". Financial Times.
  18. ^ "Billboard Top 100 – 1959". Archived from the original on January 2, 2014. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  19. ^ "Greatest of All Time Hot 100 Singles : Page 1". Billboard. Retrieved 2016-08-29.
  20. ^ "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. December 11, 2003.
  21. ^ "Cowell, the king of pap pop, reveals his Desert Island tunes". The Independent. October 22, 2011.
  22. ^ "New Entries to National Recording Registry". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2016-08-29.
  23. ^ "Ella Fitzgerald". November 23, 2020.
  24. ^ "King Kurt – Mack The Knife". Discogs. Retrieved 6 February 2021.
  25. ^ "Pedro Navaja". Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  26. ^ Liberace performs "Mack the Knife" on The Ed Sullivan Show on YouTube (note: this performance omits the music box version).


External links[edit]