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Does anyone know the origin and history of the song "Mack the Knife" made popular by Bobby Darin?

I heard the song was originally written and sung in German.

9 Answers

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    It has been done in German, but here's the history of the song:

    There were no mobs in Detroit in 1728, when the character we know as Mack the Knife first made his appearance. In those days, there were only about 30 families living in Fort Ponchartrain near Detroit du Herie (strait of Erie), and none of them belonged to the Purple Gang. In fact, the reference is to London, not Detroit, and to politicians more than street gangs.

    The character of Macheath, later to become Mack the Knife, first appeared in The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (1685-1732). Gay was a popular English playwright and poet, a friend and collaborator of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

    The Beggar's Opera is a comic ballad opera, the first of its kind, and took London theatre by storm. Gay uses lower-class criminals to satirize government and upper-class society, an idea that has been used often ever since. A century and a half later, the title characters in Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance note that they are more honest than "many a king on a first-class throne." And in our time, wasn't it Bob Dylan who wrote, "Steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you a king?"

    The main character of The Beggar's Opera is a swashbuckling thief called Macheath. He's a dashing romantic, a gentleman pickpocket, a Robin Hood type. He is polite to the people he robs, avoids violence, and shows impeccable good manners while cheating on his wife. The character is usually understood as partly a satire of Sir Robert Walpole, a leading British politician of the time.

    The Beggar's Opera was a success from its first production in 1728, and continued to be performed for many years. It was the first musical play produced in colonial New York; George Washington enjoyed it.

    We now skip about 200 years to post-WWI Europe and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), a distant cousin of this SDSTAFFer. World War I had a revolutionary impact on the arts. The avant-garde movement, in despair after the war, embraced the concept of the anti-hero. Gay's play was revived in England in 1920, and Brecht thought it could be adapted to suit the new era – who's more of an anti-hero than Macheath? So in 1927 he got a German translation and started writing Die Dreigroschenoper, "The Three Penny Opera."

    Brecht worked with Kurt Weill (1900-1950) on the adaptation. He did far more than just translate Gay's play, he reworked it to reflect the decadence of the period and of the Weimar republic. Mostly, Brecht wrote or adapted the lyrics, and Weill wrote or adapted the music. Gay's eighteenth-century ballads were replaced with foxtrots and tangos. Only one of Gay's melodies remained in the new work. The play parodies operatic conventions, romantic lyricism and happy endings.

    The main character is still Macheath, but Macheath transformed. He's now called Mackie Messer, AKA Mack the Knife. ("Messer" is German for knife.) Where Gay's Macheath was a gentleman thief, Brecht's Mackie is an out-and-out gangster. He's no longer the Robin Hood type, he's an underworld cutthroat, the head of a band of street robbers and muggers. He describes his activities as "business" and himself as a "businessman." Still, the character does manage to arouse some sympathy from the audience.

    So, we finally get to your song, the "Ballad of Mack the Knife" (Die Moritat von Mackie Messer) from The Three Penny Opera. The song was a last-minute addition to appease the vanity of tenor Harald Paulson, who played Macheath. However, it was performed by the ballad singer, to introduce the character. The essence of the song is: "Oh, look who's coming onstage, it's Mack the Knife – a thief, murderer, arsonist, and rapist." (If these last two startle you, be patient for a couple paragraphs.)

    The Brecht-Weill version premiered in Germany in 1928 and was an instant hit. Within a year, it was being performed throughout Europe, from France to Russia. Between 1928 and 1933 it was translated into 18 languages and had over 10,000 performances.

    In 1933, The Three Penny Opera was first translated into English and brought to New York by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky. There have been at least eight English translations over the years. In the 1950s, Marc Blitzstein wrote an adaptation, cleaning up "Mack the Knife" and dropping the last two stanzas about arson and rape. At the revival in New York using the Blitzstein translation, Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's widow, made her comeback – she had a role in the original 1928 Berlin production.

    Blitzstein's sanitized adaptation is the best known version of the song in the English-speaking world, and undoubtedly the one you've heard. Louis Armstrong popularized it worldwide in 1955 with an amazing jazz beat. Bobby Darin's 1958 recording was #1 on the Billboard charts for many weeks and won a Grammy as best song. It's been sung as ballad, jazz, and rock by many of the greats, including Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney.

    In the 1970s, Joseph Papp commissioned Ralph Manheim and John Willett to do an adaptation/translation that would be "more faithful" to Brecht. So, if you were surprised at the notion of arson and rape, here's Willett's translation of the last two stanzas, omitted from the Blitzstein version:

    And the ghastly fire in Soho,

    Seven children at a go—

    In the crowd stands Mack the knife, but

    He's not asked and doesn't know.

    And the child bride in her nightie,

    Whose assailant's still at large

    Violated in her slumbers—

    Mackie how much did you charge?

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  • 1 decade ago

    That's a good question! I would be interested in finding out too. I can't believe a song about a serial killer would be so popular. It's one of my mom's favorite songs. Weird!

    Edited to add: This is what I've found so far -

    Artist: Bobby Darin

    Song: Mack The Knife

    Date: 16/10/1959

    Country of Origin: US

    Weeks at the top: 2

    Writer: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill; English lyrics by Marc Blitzstein

    Producer : Ahmet Ertegun

    Comments: Translated from 'Moritat' included in the Threepenny Opera.

    ******Best explanation I've seen so far is at:

    ......1728, when the character we know as Mack the Knife first made his appearance.

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    i read it was originally written for a play.

    Written by: Kurt Weill/E. Bertolt Brecht/Marc Blitzstein

    Written in 1928 as “Moritat” or “Theme from the Threepenny Opera” aka “The Beggar’s Opera” and introduced in that production by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya

    Produced by: Ahmet Ertegun/Nesuhi Ertegun/Jerry Wexler

    Arranged by: Richard Wess

    Orchestra conducted by: Richard Wess

    Appears on: That’s All ~ The Bobby Darin Story ~ The Legendary Bobby Darin ~ Something Special LPs

    A Side of: “Was There a Call for Me”

    Recorded: December 19, 1958

    Released: August 1959

    The #5 song of the 1955-59 Rock Era

    Was #1 for 9 weeks in 1959

    14th most popular single in Billboards HOT 100 History

    Bobby’s first (and only) number one song

    Won the Grammy for “Record of the Year” in 1959

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  • hush
    Lv 4
    4 years ago

    Mack The Knife German Lyrics

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  • 1 decade ago

    It's origins come from the ThreePenny Opera. A shady character named Mackie Messer.

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  • Kurt Weill "Three Penny Opera"

    A great work, with libretto (by all people) Bertolt Brecht.

    If you are going to buy the CD, get the one by Teresa Stratas--- her singing is incredible & powerful.

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  • 1 decade ago

    Kurt Weil wrote the song. Check out some of his stuff...

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  • DJ
    Lv 4
    1 decade ago

    That's a nice song!

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  • 1 decade ago

    it was originally german but it was done byt SEVERAL "jazz" performers......louis armstrong, ella fitzgerald, frank sinatra, et al.

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