Captain Macheath- The story behind Mack the Knife.


Mack the Knife is one of my favourite Jazz songs,  I love the Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong versions equally. It just doesn’t get cooler then that song, sung by those 2 performers, although Sammy Davis Jr, does a pretty cool rendition also.

Even though  I have admired this song for decades. it is only recently I discovered the actual history of the song. I always thought it was written in the 50s.

The song was composed in 1928 in Berlin by Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht provided the lyrics.

Weil was Jewish while  Brecht was a Christian, his mother was a Protestant and his Father was Catholic , but he was an opponent  of the Nazi regime and had Marxist sympathies .Both men fled Germany in the early 30s for fear of persecution. They both ended up in the US, but Brecht eventually returned to East Berlin after the war.

They had written the music drama called “The Three penny Opera” which premiered in Berlin in 1928. The song Mack the Knife, or “Die Moritat von Mackie Messe” was part if that opera.

The character Mack the Knife is based on , the dashing highwayman Macheath, from John Gay’s   “The Beggar’s Opera ”


Although Macheath is a fictional character he is believed to be based on, or at least partially based on Jack Sheppard, an English thief and jail breaker, and also enjoyed the affections of a prostitute, but unlike the character in the song he despised violence.

The Macheath in Mack the Knife is compared with a shark, and it  tells tales of his  numerous  crimes like robberies, murders, rapes, and arson.

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.

The song was was translated in 1954 by Marc Blizstein. The nuances of Blitzstein’s  translations are different compared to the original.

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.

jack knife

Leaving you with Bobby Darin’s version of the song.


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