Study Guide

Mack the Knife Technique

  • Calling Card

    "Darin was one of the most exciting performers American showbiz has ever known, but it would be inappropriate to describe him as an original," writes Will Friedwald. (Source, 92) 

    Bobby Darin was a pop star-turned actor who longed for legendary status, but died before he could make a truly permanent name for himself. "Mack the Knife," his first and last #1 hit, is probably his most lasting legacy. After enjoying a stint in the spotlight as the pop star of the day, Darin made some strange career turns—including his ventures into political hippie-dom in the 1960s, a turn that didn't seem to suit the polished pop star or please his fans. He died of heart illness in 1973 at only 37 years old.

    Darin had the charisma and the style to be a star. He was the youngest person in his time to get a main stage show in Vegas, and for a few years at his peak, he drew massive crowds everywhere he went. He was smooth, sleek, and thrilling on stage. But, as Friedwald noted, Darin never quite had the originality or forcefulness to become a legend. Even his winning performance of "Mack the Knife" was influenced in obvious ways by Louis Armstrong's patently original 1956 version of the song, down to imitating Armstrong's tempo and small lyrical changes (for example, he changed "dear" to "babe" on all the same lines as Armstrong). 

    Darin was also influenced by Frank Sinatra in his "whole swaggering approach, his swinging machismo" (source, 92). Friedwald does conclude that Darin was "more than just a sum of his influences" (source, 93), and a great pop singer in his own right. In his hands, a satirical German show-tune became the stuff of U.S. pop culture, which says a lot about his abilities as a performer who could cater well to popular tastes while maintaining the integrity of the song and its creators. 

    If there is such a thing as a Bobby Darin legacy, "Mack the Knife" is it.

  • Songwriting

    The version of "Mack the Knife" that Bobby Darin sings is a relatively late translation by Marc Blitzstein. Blitzstein's English version of Die Dreigroschenoper hit the stage off-Broadway in 1954 and had a very successful six-year run. "Mack the Knife," or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," was retranslated from the original "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer."

    Blitzstein did a lot to jazz up the lyrics for the times. A translation from the 1930s had never caught on as a popular song even after a Broadway run. Blitzstein added "dear" at the end of many of the lines, partly to make up for the difference in syllables from German to English. He also came up with some of the most famous lines as we know them: 

    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

    The literal German on these lines is quite a bit less colorful, going something like: 

    And the shark, it has teeth
    And it wears them in its face
    And Macheath, he has a knife
    But the knife one doesn't see

    If those lines are truly scary-sounding in the German, it's certainly lost in literal translation. Blitzstein's graceful translation restored the song's real power, the power of bloody descriptiveness.

    The effect of these little changes created the perfect material for a popular song. After all, people love a thrill—within limits, of course. Blitzstein did choose to remove the song's last two verses, the ones about rape and arson, which might have pushed 1950s audiences just a little bit past those limits: 

    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? 

    In fact, we're thinking those last two verses probably wouldn't make it far in a pop song even today.

    This stuff actually puts a lot of gangsta rap to shame for creepiness content, although it certainly has some latter-day contenders. The takeaway point isn't so much that some songs are scarier than others, but that being sinister—and knowing when to stop or slow down—really is an art all its own.