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Home » blog » Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald Swing “Mack the Knife,” Which is a Scary Song
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Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald Swing “Mack the Knife,” Which is a Scary Song

Mack the Knife is a beloved jazz standard. Besides Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin are heavyweights who recorded it. Here is a fabulous version by Armstrong.

The song is from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, sings it here in German.

The song simply is not very nice. Commentary before another video — which has been taken down, unfortunately — describes Berlin as a degenerate pit in which Nazism grew. Lenya leaves no doubt who this much-loved song really is about at the end.

Here are some lyrics from the song. Very pleasant stuff:

Jenny Towler
Poor wee Jenny,
There they found her
Knife in breast.

Mackie’s wandering
On the West Pier
Hoping only
For the best.

Mind that fire burnt
All through Soho.
Seven kids dead
One old flower.

***

And those sweet babes
Under sixteen
Story goes that
Black and blue

For the price of
One good screwing
Mackie, Mackie
How could you?

It goes on like that. It’s also unclear why the murderer, Macheath, is not German. I have no interest in seeing a production or reading it, so I guess I’ll never know.

At the end of the day, we have a song that is about murder and references Hitler. It’s beloved and sung by big stars. Actually, it’s a perfect pop classic for the 20th century.

Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.