Mack the Knife
In a Nutshell
It's really quite creepy what a cheerful song "Mack the Knife" is. After all, the song can pretty much be summed up as a description of the evil deeds of a thief, womanizer, and serial killer. Still, most people hear it and just want to snap their fingers and bob their heads.
The character that "Mack the Knife" introduces, Macheath, is a timeless anti-hero created by German playwrights Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill for their 1928 musical masterpiece Die Dreigroschenoper
, known in English as The Threepenny Opera—
a political satire written under an oppressive German regime and eventually banned by the Nazis. But the concept of the anti-hero is a bit confusing: how can we like someone who we know is basically evil? Have you ever been drawn to something or someone even though you knew
it was bad?
Well, you're in luck with "Mack the Knife": fiction is a reasonably safe place to explore our draw toward death and deviousness. Other people thought so too: Bobby Darin's exceedingly sugary and upbeat 1959 version was gory and disturbing, but it topped the charts. Everyone loves a good bad guy, right?
About the Song
||Musician(s)||Bobby Darin (vocals), Richard Wess (orchestra conductor, arrangements)
|Writer(s)||Kurt Weill (music), E. Bertolt Brecht (lyrics), Marc Blitzstein (English translation)|
|Producer(s)||Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler|
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
The history of "Mack the Knife" begins long before Brecht and Weill wrote the song in 1928. Their inspiration goes all the way back to 1728, to a British play called The Beggar's Opera
written by John Gay to mock the ruling classes. And Gay had some good precedents for the idea of writing an opera with a violent thief as the protagonist. After all, the Brits had already seen satirical anti-heroes ranging from Shakespeare's Richard III
to John Milton's fabulously dangerous Satan in Paradise Lost
When Brecht and Weill had great success with their German opera in the 1930s, people said it was a great play for the epoch—the pair of socialists successfully satirized serious enemies (like the Nazis, who banned the play in 1933) and made some sharp political points for their time. But a full 30 years later, Bobby Darin's version of "Mack the Knife" became the most popular song in the U.S. And that just seems strange, right? A cheery little serial-killer socialist-opera ditty at the top of the charts? Since when were violence
, and thieves
so important to pop culture
Um, right. Read on to find out how "Mack the Knife" fits into a whole tradition of violent satire
and backwards heroism that's been around since pretty much forever
On the Charts
Darin's version of "Mack the Knife" topped the Billboard charts for 9 weeks in 1959.
"Mack the Knife" won a Grammy in 1959 for Record of the Year. Darin also won the Grammy for Best New Artist.
"Mack the Knife" is the 14th most popular song in Billboard Hot 100 history.
In 2003, the song was ranked #251 on Rolling Stone
's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Bobby Darin was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame
Bobby Darin won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.