Mack the Knife
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Mack the Knife

really note-for-note jazz piano, bass, drums, sax transcriptions


mack the knife.jpg"Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife", originally "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", is a song composed by Kurt Weil with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper, or, as it is known in English, The Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928. The song has become a pop standard.


 

The Threepenny Opera

A moritat is a medieval version of the murder ballad performed by strolling minstrels, from mori meaning "deadly" and tat meaning "deed". In The Threepenny Opera, the moritat singer with his street organ introduces and closes the drama with the tale of the deadly Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, a character based on the dashing highwayman Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The Brecht-Weill version of the character was far more cruel and sinister, and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.

The opera opens with the moritat singer comparing Macheath (unfavorably) with a shark, and then telling tales of his robberies, murders, rapes, and arson:

The song in German:

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zahne
Und die tragt er im Gesicht
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht

An 'nem schonen blauen Sonntag
Liegt ein toter Mann am Strand
Und ein Mensch geht um die Ecke,
Den man Mackie Messer nennt

Und Schmul Meier bleibt verschwunden
Und so mancher reiche Mann
Und sein Geld hat Mackie Messer
Dem man nichts beweisen kann

Jenny Towler ward gefunden
Mit 'nem Messer in der Brust
Und am Kai geht Mackie Messer,
Der von allem nichts gewu?t

Und die minderjahrige Witwe
Deren Namen jeder wei?
Wachte auf und war geschandet
Mackie welches war dein Preis?

Refrain
Und die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die anderen sind im Licht
Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht

Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht

Literal translation:

And the shark, he has teeth
And he wears them in his face
And Macheath, he has a knife
But the knife you don't see

On a beautiful blue Sunday
Lies a dead man on the Strand
And a man goes around the corner
Whom they call Mack the Knife

And Schmul Meier stays missing
As do some rich men
And his money has Mack the Knife,
On whom they can't pin anything.

Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her chest
And on the wharf walks Mack the Knife,
Who knows nothing about all this.

And the minor-aged widow,
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was violated
Mack, what was your price?

And some are in the darkness
And the others in the light
But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don't see

But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don't see

1954 Blitzstein translation

In the best known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of The Threepenny Opera, which introduced the song to English-speaking audiences, the words are:

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.


This is the version performed on popular hits by Louis Armstrong (1956) and Bobby Darin (1959) (Darin's lyrics differ here and there), and most subsequent swing versions. Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, the star of both the original 1928 German production and the 1954 Blitzstein Broadway version, was present in the studio during Armstrong's recording. He spontaneously added her name to the lyrics, which already named several of Macheath's female victims.

The rarely heard final verse — not included in the original play, but added by Brecht for the 1930 movie — expresses the theme, and compares the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor:

In German:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht

In English:

There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight


1976 Manheim-Willett translation

In 1976 the version translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett opened on Broadway, a movie version was later made starring Raul Julia as "Mackie". Here is an excerpt:

See the shark with teeth like razors
You can read his open face
And Macheath, he's got a knife, but
Not in such an obvious place

This is the version later performed by Sting and Nick Cave. It is also the version performed by Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack of the film Quiz Show (1994) — the same movie that features the Darin rendition over the opening credits.

1994 translation

A much darker translation into English was used for the 1994 Donmar Warehouse production in London:

Though the shark's teeth may be lethal
Still you see them white and red
But you won't see Mackie's flick knife
Cause he's slashed you and you're dead

Crimes of Macheath

The song attributes many crimes to Macheath:

* A dead man in London, on the famous street Strand
* A rich man, Schmul Meier, disappeared for good
* Jenny Towler, killed with a knife in the chest
* Seven children and an old man killed in an arson fire
* Rape of an underage widow (minderjahrige Witwe) in her bed

The arson and rape were omitted from the original cast recording of the Blitzstein version, but remain intact in the libretto.

Popular song

"Mack the Knife" was introduced to the U.S. hit parade by Louis Armstrong in 1954, but the song is most closely associated with Bobby Darin, who recorded his version at Fulton Studios on West 40th Street, NYC, December 19, 1958 (with Tom Dowd engineering the recording). In 1959 Darin's version reached number one on Billboard's Hot 100 and number six on the Black Singles chart. Dick Clark had advised Darin not to record the song because of the perception that, having come from an opera, it wouldn't appeal to the rock & roll audience. To this day, Clark recounts the story with good humor. Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with Dean Martin, called Darin's the "definitive" version. On Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, pop mogul Simon Cowell named "Mack the Knife" the best song ever written. In 2003, the Darin version was ranked #251 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.

Ella Fitzgerald made a famous live recording in 1960 (released on Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife) in which, after forgetting the lyrics after the first verse, she successfully improvised new lyrics in a performance that earned her a Grammy. Robbie Williams also recorded the song on his 2001 album Swing When You're Winning. Other notable versions of "Mack the Knife" include performances by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Bennett, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Emma Pask and James Morrison, Brian Setzer, Westlife, Merrill Osmond, Kenny Garrett, Kevin Spacey and Michael Buble. Sonny Rollins recorded an instrumental version called simply "Moritat" in 1956. A 1959 instrumental performance by Bill Haley & His Comets was the final song the group recorded for Decca Records. Tito Puente has also recorded an instrumental version. Many versions of "Mack the Knife" pay homage to previous artists who have recorded the song by naming them towards the end.

The song has been put to many other uses. American parodists the Capitol Steps used the tune for their song "Pack the Knife" in their 2002 album When Bush Comes to Shove. In the mid-1980s, McDonalds introduced "Mac Tonight", a character whose theme song was based upon "Mack the Knife".   

Selective list of recorded versions

* 1928/29 "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" - Bertolt Brecht
* 1954 Gerald Price, Broadway cast recording of The Threepenny Opera
* 1956 Louis Armstrong
* 1956 "Moritat" - Dick Hyman, instrumental
* 1956 "A Theme From The Three Penny Opera 'Moritat'" - Billy Vaughn, instrumental
* 1956 "Moritat" - Sonny Rollins, jazz saxophone instrumental
* 1959 Bobby Darin, U.S. and UK #1
* 1959 Bill Haley & His Comets on the album Strictly Instrumental
* 1959 Kenny Dorham on the album "Quiet Kenny"
* 1960 Ella Fitzgerald on the album Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife
* 1964 Milos Kopecky in Czech musical Lemonade Joe (Limonadovy Joe aneb Konska opera)
* 1967 Dave Van Ronk on the album Live at Sir George Williams University, again in 1992 on Let No One Deceive You: Songs of Bertolt Brecht
* 1968 The Doors on the album Live In Stockholm
* 1980 The Psychedelic Furs on the 2002 re-release of their self titled first album
* 1983 King Kurt on the album Ooowallahwallah!, psychobilly version
* 1984 Frank Sinatra
* 1985 Sting on the album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill
* 1990 Roger Daltrey on the film soundtrack Mack the Knife
* 1990 Rolf Boysen on a Decca CD release of Die Dreigroschenoper (sung in German)
* 1991 The Young Gods on the album The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill
* 1994 Lyle Lovett on the soundtrack to Quiz Show
* 1994 Frank Sinatra with Jimmy Buffett on the album Duets II
* 1995 Nick Cave on the album September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill
* 2000 P Paul Fenech on the album Screaming In The 10th Key' (hidden track)
* 2000 The Brian Setzer Orchestra on the album Vavoom!'
* 2001 Robbie Williams on the album Swing When You're Winning
* 2001 Gareth Gates on the CD compilation Pop Idol: The Big Band Album
* 2002 Capitol Steps parody as "Pack the Knife"
* 2004 Michael Buble
* 2004 Westlife
* 2006 David Campbell on his The Swing Sessions album
* 2006 Kevin Spacey On his version of Bobby Darin on the Beyond the Sea soundtrack.
* 2007 Ray Quinn X-Factor Runner Up, on his debut Album "Doing it My Way - Ray Quinn"
* 2007 Blake Lewis, the runner-up on the sixth season of American Idol, both live (April 4, 2007) on the show and studio version, which was released on the American Idol official website and later in the American Idol Season 6: The Collector's Edition, the compilation of the studio versions of song performed by the finalists of Idol.
* Tony Bennett
* Jimmie Dale Gilmore
* Dean Martin
* Merrill Osmond
* The Divine Comedy (band)
* Slut "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" German music group from Ingolstadt.