Hallows 2014, Day 1: Mack the Knife

Mack the Knife
Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, 1954 English translation by Marc Blitzstein

Let’s start off with a good ‘n dark one! It used to be called “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Well, actually, it used to be called “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer.” A moritat, in the medieval tradition, is a murder ballad telling the story of a killer. When Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, both incredible artists in their own right, adapted John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) into the Threepenny Opera (1928), they wrote this tune which both introduced and closed their show. Mack the Knife was their version of Macheath, the leading man and leading criminal in The Beggar’s Opera. Macheath didn’t sing the song; instead a street singer sang it. It was intended to be accompanied by a street barrel organ, and, presumably, would have been pretty creepy. The organ broke just before the performance, however, and the jazz orchestra in the pit had to improvise quickly. It’s best known as a jazz tune today.

For a treat, check out Ella Fitzgerald singing it. She recorded in live in Berlin and, upon forgetting the words about halfway through, she just keeps on going and starts making stuff up.

Below are the lyrics. First the original German with English translation:

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,
Und die trägt er im Gesicht.
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer,
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

And the shark, it has teeth,
And it wears them in the face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife can’t be seen.


And the lyrics to the commonly known jazz version:

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And it shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has MacHeath, babe,
And he keeps it way out of sight.

When that shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, wears old MacHeath, babe,
So there’s never, never a trace of red.

On the sidewalk, one Sunday mornin’
Lies a body just oozin’ life.
Someone’s sneakin’ round that corner.
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

Oh there’s a tugboat down by the river
Where a cement bag’s just a’droopin’ on down
That cement’s just there for the weight, dear,
Five’ll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town

Now d’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe
After drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash
Now MacHeath spends, he spends like a sailor
Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?

Ah Jenny Diver, Sukey Tawdry,
Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown,
Oh, the line forms on the right, babe,
Now that Macky’s back in town.

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry,
Miss Lotte Lenya, and old Lucy Brown,
Oh, the line forms on the right, babe,
Now that Macky’s back in town.


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