Study Guide

Mack the Knife

Mack the Knife Introduction

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

ArtistDarin, Bobby
Year1959
LabelAtlantic (ATCO)
Writer(s)Kurt Weill (music), E. Bertolt Brecht (lyrics), Marc Blitzstein (English translation)
Producer(s)Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
Musician(s)Bobby Darin (vocals), Richard Wess (orchestra conductor, arrangements)
Learn to playSheet Music
AlbumThat's All

Music Video

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Influences on Darin, Bobby

Bobby Darin:
Louis Armstrong
Frank Sinatra
Kurt Weill
Tim Hardin

Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht
John Gay
Karl Marx
Shakespeare
Büchner
Wedekind

Influenced by Darin, Bobby

Bobby Darin:
Michael Bublé
Brian Setzer
John Stevens
Jonathan Poretz

Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht:
The Dresden Dolls
Steven Sondheim
John Kander

Mack the Knife Resources

Books

Will Friedwald, Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (2002)
This wonderfully detailed set of mini-biographies tells the story of 12 popular songs from the 20th century, from the music to the business and politics behind the tunes. The section on "Mack the Knife" is packed with surprising details and analysis of the song's musical development as it became widely covered.

Albums

Bobby Darin, That's All (1959)
This is the original album that featured "Mack the Knife" in its beloved Darin incarnation.

Bobby Darin, Mack the Knife and Other Hits (2006)
The 1959 version of "Mack the Knife" appears on many Darin albums and compilations—this is merely one of the latest incarnations.

Louis Armstrong, Essential Louis Armstrong (2004)
This two-disc collection gets you Armstrong's 1956 "Mack the Knife," plus so much more. If you love Louis, you need this album.

Images

Bobby Darin
This flashy, charismatic fella was a perfect storm for the late 1950s, though we're not sure how his hair gel would go over these days.

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
The German super-pair were also just a couple of awkward guys.

Threepenny Opera Poster
There have been dozens of incarnations of the American version of the play. This picture captures the character of Mack and the play's sinister mood nicely.

One Scary Macheath
This is Raul Julia playing the part for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976.

Movies & TV

Seeing Is Believing (2006)
This is a compilation of live performances by Bobby Darin.

The Beggar's Opera (1931)
This early version (in German) of what would come to be known as the Threepenny Opera features Lotte Lenya, who was Kurt Weill's widow and a great singer in her own right.

Websites

The Threepenny Opera Official Website
This lovely site is dedicated to all things Threepenny Opera and includes a detailed history of the original German composition and the many translations and variations that later emerged. (P.S. Check out our guide, too.)

Bobby Darin Website
This is a pretty slim site, but it seems to be the best source for updates on Bobby Darin.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Bobby Darin
Get a little biographical background on this bold pop star.

"The Story Behind 'Mack the Knife,'" The Straight Dope (2004)
This little column includes most everything we've told you here, but it's a little more compact and clears up a myth about the song's relationship to Detroit mobsters.

Video & Audio

Bobby Darin, "Mack the Knife"
Of course, here's audio of our song of the hour.

Louis Armstrong, "Mack the Knife"
Before Darin, Armstrong was really the first to have the idea to seriously jazz up "Mack the Knife."

Ella Fitzgerald, "Mack the Knife"
In a now-legendary performance, Fitzgerald forgot the lyrics partway through the song and came up with her own on the spot.

Frank Sinatra, "Mack the Knife"
Darin's was the defining hit, but Frank Sinatra was a direct inspiration to Darin, especially in terms of that baudy-yet-smooth performance style.

Bing Crosby, "Mack the Knife"
Everybody did this song. This is maybe the jazziest and the sleaziest version, and it might just be our favorite.