|From the 2018 German film Mackie Messer - Brechts Dreigroschenfilm|
It was last week's death of a man named Mac -- Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, that got me thinking of this wonderful song. It probably was the first song about a serial killer to become a huge American pop hit: "Mack the Knife." The Night Tripper recorded it on his last album released while he was still alive, Ske-Dat-De-Dat ... The Spirit of Satch (2014).
But no, even though Louis Armstong did one of the best versions of the song, "Mack the Knife" did not originate in some Storyville cat house where jazzbos picked it up, It came from Germany
According to an article by Laurence Senelick on the Boston Lyric Opera website, Die Dreigroschen Oper (The Threepenny Opera) "was a rethinking of The Beggar’s Opera, a 1728 English satire of Italian opera by the poet John Gay. Elisabeth Hauptmann had translated the work, thinking it appropriate to a Germany roiled by post-war economic depression, conspicuous depravity and political turbulence. The left-wing poet Bertolt Brecht gave it a make-over, setting it in a mythical Victorian London, and providing his own sardonic lyrics. The jazz-flavored music was by [singer/actress Lotte] Lenya’s husband, the distinguished composer Kurt Weill."
And the brightest penny from The Threepenny Opera was "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" better known as "Mack the Knife." Says Senelick:
Macheath is a womanizing highwayman, a rollicking, amoral rogue. Brecht’s Mackie Messer is rather more ruthless, archetypal of the modern capitalist. Paulsen had devised his own foppish costume: spats, a sword-stick, a light-colored derby and a sky-blue butterfly tie that matched his eyes. Shortly before the show was to open, he demanded an entrance song that would announce his character. Brecht decided to compose one that would counteract the dandy image, and so penned .
A Moritat is a murder ballad—from the Latin, mori, of death, and the German tat, deed, especially dastardly deed. A Moritat was traditionally intoned by street singers and illustrated by lurid pictures on a pole or easel. In Brecht’s verse, Mackie is not directly accused of the song’s list of crimes, as if the street singer feared the consequences; they are imputed to him.
Three Pernny Opera premiered in Berlin in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. A movie was made by G.W. Pabst in 1931. And when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they banned it.. Brecht, Weill and Lenya fled the country and ended up in the US.
Here's a German version of "Mack" sung by Brecht himself.
And here's Lotte Lenya singing lyrics translated by Marc Blitzstein. She starred as "Pirate Jenny" the pickpocket in both the original 1928 German production, the 1931 German movie and the 1954 Broadway version.
It didn’t take long for “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” to become a jazz and pop standard. Louis Armstrong recorded an upbeat version on September 28, 1955. Since Lenya was in the studio during the session, he added her name to the list of the killer's victims.
Here's a live video from the TV variety show Hollywood Palace in 1965
Bobby Darin recorded probably the best known and most popular version in December 1958. Here he is 12 years later on The Andy Williams Show.
Folk giant Dave Van Ronk did an pretty, somewhat spooky, acoustic version in the 1990s. He must have been a Three Penny Opera fan. When I saw him in the early 80s, he played "Alabama Song," (better known as "Whiskey Bar," which is what The Doors called it.)
Van Ronk includes a verse similar to the little-used final verse (also used by Mark Lanegan, which is based on Van Ronk's interpretation):
Some are children of the darkness
Some are children of the sun
You can see the sons of daylight
Sons of dark are seen by none
Fast forward to the early part of this century and Polish rocker Kazik Staszewski brought Mack and company back to Europe. And yes, under the catchy title "Straszna Pieśń O Mackiem Majchrze," ("A Terrible Song About Mack Maikara"). he made it rock! This is from his Kurt Weil tribute album
And yes, the late, great Dr. John funked it up on his version featuring jazz trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and rapper Mike Ladd.
For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook