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The Strange Career of “Mack the Knife”

As old Macheath is inducted into the National Recording Registry, here’s a look back at his long musical life

Tom Randle plays Macheath, or “Mack the Knife,” in a production of Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera. (Robbie Jack/Corbis)
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There’s nothing more American than Bobby Darin’s swingin’ version of “Mack The Knife”—a song so embedded in U.S. culture that it was just inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Or is there? It turns out that the toe-tapping, bizarre tune is a product of Germany…and its history is as convoluted as the tale of Old Mack himself.

The most famous version of “Mack the Knife” was recorded by Darin in 1959 and was so successful that it earned him Best New Artist and Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards and was the best-selling record of 1960. The last big hit of the swing era, the record captivated audiences with lyrics about a creepy, sinister criminal named Macheath.

But Macheath’s roots go back to the 1720s, when a play called The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay debuted in London. The play was a “ballad opera”—a performance that used the tunes of popular ballads and ditties of the day instead of original music. The plot concerns a highwayman hero named Macheath who elopes with a young woman, only to be turned into the authorities by her father. Macheath escapes jail and indulges in all sorts of sensual pleasures and farcical romps along the way.

The play was a sensation in London because of its thinly veiled political satire and its accessible style. But it didn’t die in 1728. Around two hundred years later, a group of daring German artists revived it under the name The Threepenny Opera. They used their adaptation of the story to make updated socialist critiques of capitalism and poke fun at theater.

At the center of their show is another Macheath, better known as “Mackie Messer” or “Mack the Knife.” He’s introduced at the beginning of the show with a moritat (murder deed) ballad—what Open Culture’s Mike Springer calls “a kind of medieval ballad traditionally sung by traveling minstrels recounting the crimes of notorious murderers.” The stripped-down song, accompanied by only a rinky-dink barrel organ, lays out all of Macheath’s dastardly deeds, from rape to theft and murder.

The Threepenny Opera was outrageously successful because of its bizarre cast of characters and its sharp social critique, but was banned by the Nazis, who outlawed any publications by its authors, adapter Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, in 1933. Though its authors might have been in exile, the play lived on. In 1945, a group of actors performed it as what may have been the first play performed in Berlin immediately after the war.

“I did not find the theater—only ruins,” recalled Wolf Von Eckardt, an art critic who attended that performance. “Then I saw people climbing those ruins and followed them through to a tunnel-like entrance….There were still bodies under that rubble….The beggars on the stage needed no grease paint to look haggard. They were haggard, starved, in genuine rags. Many of the actors, I learned backstage during intermission, had only just been released from concentration camp. They sang not well, but free.” The actors told Von Eckardt that they wanted to prove that the war was over, so they decided to put on the most incendiary play they could think of.

In 1948, Benjamin Britten adapted The Beggar’s Opera into a real opera, but Brecht and Weil’s version was the one that stuck with the public. Eventually, Mack the Knife found his way to the mouth of Louis Armstrong, who did the first American rendition of the song in 1956 (his rendition was also honored in the registry). By the time it got to Darin, Macheath’s dastardly deeds had been cleaned up a bit, but the song still struck a nerve with listeners. Its legacy lived on through Ella Fitzgerald’s famous lyric-forgetting rendition all the way to McDonald’s questionable 1980s “Mac Tonight” ad campaign. The induction of Mack into the National Recording Registry means that perhaps another wild take on the criminal mastermind isn’t far behind.

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