Anybody remember this ad from the 80’s?

I saw that quite a bit, and I knew one kid who was so obsessed with it that he ended up working at McDonald’s and I’m not sure how much of an exaggeration that is. Anyway, the original song, “Mack The Knife”, has quite an interesting history to it. Long story short: starting in a German play, the song was adapted first by jazz legend Louis Armstrong, but the more famous version came from crooner Bobby Darin. So why is it the first song to be part of the Spotlight’s new feature, Sing Me A Story?

I haven’t done too much about music on this blog because it’s not part of my writing goals. However, the fact that a “Music Spotlight” category exists on this site means that I see the potential to tell a story in song beside a musical. (Odd, since that’s kind of where this song gets its origins.) As new internet reviewers try to come up with something to set them apart from the AVGN or the Nostalgia Critic, some are turning to music and music videos such as Todd in the Shadows, Cin Wicked, or Audible Underwear. So at the risk of defending “gangsta rap”, I just wanted to prove that violent music isn’t a new trend. This song, for example, disguises a song about a serial killer with a bouncy tune. I find that both amusing…and disturbing.

Yes, I know it’s a good song overall, and rather beloved. After all, there are a lot of covers besides Armstrong and Darin, but have you ever listened to the words? Seriously listened to them? Here’s a video featuring Darin performing the song live.

Rhythmically, this song really swings. I have no problems with it, and honestly I don’t hate the song, so this isn’t the kind of rip Todd or Cin would do. But there is this part of my brain that listens to the song and has to dissect it. We go to to get the words.

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

OK, this part is rather tame, even by 1950’s standards. And granted, this song isn’t Cop Killer (because I’m old and don’t follow all the latest song controversies) by any means, but these are still odd lyrics for a happy tune.

Ya know when that shark bites, with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s nevah, nevah a trace of red.
Now on the sidewalk... uuh, huh... whoo, sunny mornin'... uuh, huh
Lies a body just oozin' life... eeek!
And someone’s sneakin' ‘round the corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

I’m really hoping that these sound effects and misspellings aren’t on the actual lyric sheet and it was just put there by the transcriber for the Darin website. I know they weren’t in the version, which I couldn’t copy/paste from.

A-there's a tugboat... huh, huh, huh... down by the river don’tcha know
Where a cement bag’s just a'droopin' on down
Oh, that cement is just, it's there for the weight, dear
Five'll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town.

It’s the next verse that makes me wonder what was going on in the play.

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

It’s the delivery here. “Something rash”? Yeah, I’d say shoving a knife in some guy and letting him bleed to death then killing this other guy after forcing him to take out all his money counts as a bit more than “rash”. Then again, I had this thought before a rather brutal slaying here in CT that made big news and has now turned into another death penalty debate.

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

When I first realized what was going on in the lyrics of this song, I was wondering if the narrator was listing the next targets. Now I wonder if these women (assuming “Sukey” is a woman’s name) aren’t supposed to be going to party with this guy using the dead sailor’s money. I’m also wondering when “Sukey” and “Lotte” were actually used as names. 🙂 Actually, looking into story of the original play, The Beggar’s Opera, explains some of that “although Lucy’s last name is changed from the original “Lockit”, which rhymes poorly with “town” in English. Also they all want to marry the highwayman, MacHeath/Mack the Knife, which really changes the way you look at this song.

The thing that amazes me, if you haven’t figured it out, is that we have a rather upbeat song about a serial killer/thief (in the 1950’s, mind you, when you couldn’t show blood on TV, married couples on TV didn’t share the same bed, and cursing was never heard–but you could smoke cigarettes to your heart’s content for as long as said heart survived said smoking) that at best shakes a finger at MacHeath (is that a first name or a last name?) and goes “Mack, did you something naughty” like he stole a cookie out of the cookie jar (and probably stabbed Cookie Monster while doing it, but still…). The song comes from a satire, granted, but considering I haven’t read anything about this song being considered controversial, outside of a BBC ban, but considering I never knew most of the backstory until AFTER I started this article, I have to say it doesn’t work well as a story. At least not on its own.

So as it turns out in the research phase, this actually…wasn’t the right song to start this series on. Or at least it was an example of how NOT to tell a story in song, since much of it requires either knowing the history of MacHeath as a character or not being bothered that the song happily sings about a murderer. So, ummm….look! Kittens on a Roomba!

I’m going to have to do my research BEFORE writing the article instead of during next time.

About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

2 responses »

  1. […] made this one to vent on a certain verse of the song, but like the time I reviewed “Mack The Knife (bonus link)” for the same reason I ended up learning something I didn’t […]


  2. […] things about old songs via research for this articles that I never would have before. How “Mack The Knife” has ties to an old opera, or “Ghost Riders In The Sky” was inspired by Norse […]


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