I have this startling fascination with murder ballads. Well, let’s back up a bit, because it isn’t just murder ballads, but songs that sound happy and are really talking about something devious. As a culture I find that we very rarely delve into the lyrics of words. We memorize what they are whether that be through Karaoke or going to a show or just listening, but do we actually listen to what they’re saying? Do we actually get into a song and think to ourselves what we’re reciting?
When I was young I was singing a Vanilla Ice song like I was a little white gangsta and my dad heard it, pulled me aside and asked me if I knew what I was saying. I said of course I knew what I was saying and so he asked me to tell him and so I just repeated the lyrics. Then he said, “What do they mean?” and when I didn’t know he told me to figure it out. So here I am, playing basketball in my backyard at 13 years old listening to a tape intently, that my parents bought me for Christmas. When I realized what a nine was, and what some of the other slang terms meant, I was sort of horrified that I was talking about a drive-by shooting in explicit detail and had no idea.
This stoked an interest in me that has never relinquished. I do this with all songs, I dive into them trying to figure out what it is they mean and sometimes even research their meaning with the goal of figuring out what the writer had in my mind as he or she wrote it. I will never do this with a Taylor Swift song, because she’s a psychopath that couldn’t craft a good song if it was written by the hand of Buddha himself. It’s partly conjecture on my part, but mainly facts that I have dug up on the interwebs, which, as we all know, never lie.
Our first installment of Between the Lines is standard “Mack the Knife”. We’ll do a little history about the song before we go line by line. The song originally entitled, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”, is a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper. Yes, it was a German opera first. In fact, the translation is literally The Threepenny Opera. It premiered in Berlin in 1928 and quickly “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” became the standout hit of the opera. That translates to “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.”
The opera is based on John Gay’s 1728 opera The Beggar’s Opera which, in turn, is based on the thief, burglar and escape artist Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). Macheath is a character in The Beggar’s Opera and in turn becomes the focal point of Die Dreigroschenoper. The opera is about murderer and well I guess I’ll just explain through the lyrics. We are going by the Bobby Darin version; however, I do love the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald versions as well. We won’t always be covering standards, but we will keep a thing with Between the Lines and Liner Notes each week to keep it somewhat cogent.
Mack the Knife – Bobby Darin
Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
The shark is obviously his knife and the teeth suggest it has a serrated edge.
And it shows them pearly white
Pearly white? Basically this means he has a clean blade. No, the term pearly white isn’t indicative of what the knife is, but merely continuing the analogy of the shark’s teeth and the knife. The literal translation from German is “And the shark, it has teeth, And it wears them in its face.” So there are liberties taken in terms of translation.
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
This is a jackknife with a serrated edge and most likely what the fictional Macheath, who again was the character in the original opera by John Gay, uses as a weapon in The Threepenny Opera and consequently the song. In the original, by John Gay, he is merely a thief and a beggar, but not a murderer.
And he keeps it, out of sight
Pretty obvious. Macheath isn’t exactly going to flash his knife around when he’s trying to remain inconspicuous.
Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe Scarlet billows start to spread
When Macheath stabs someone they bleed. “Scarlet billows” is a very nice way of saying blood and of course continuing with the shark theme we have it biting. It’s a wonderful disambiguation to keep from being too graphic, but at the same time getting the point across.
Fancy gloves, THOUGH, wears old MacHeath, babe so there’s never, never a trace of red
Macheath is smart. He makes sure he wears glove (much like OJ) and so they never find blood on him, thus never connecting him to the murders.
Now on the sidewalk sunny mornin’ lies a body just oozin’ life,
“Oozing life” is a very clever way of saying dying and bleeding to death. There’s a really interesting conflict here as the sunny morning is supposed to be a symbol of peace, birds chirping, etc. and yet we have this body lying there dying one drop at a time.
And someone’s sneakin’ round the corner could that someone be Mack the Knife?
This is the first time we hear this nickname in the song and perhaps we realize now that Macheath has reached legendary status. Serial killers, such as they are, crave fame and that fame is usually attained when the media has given them their moniker. Son of Sam, Nightstalker, Jack the Ripper are all names given to people as a way of immortalizing their murderous deeds. Here as Macheath is given the name “Mack the Knife” we see he is becoming legendary and yet it’s formed into a question. Mainly because, two lines previous he has been said to wear gloves. So while the audience knows Macheath is in fact a murderer, he is still innocent in the world of the opera as he can’t be proven to have done it.
There’s a tugboat down by the river with a cement bag just droopin’ on down
Just basic foreshadowing here.
Oh, that cement is just, it’s there for the weight, dear
This is something almost from a mafia movie, but it’s Macheath explain exactly what it’s for in calculating almost monstrous detail to his victim before he kills them.
Five’ll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town
This, from what I’ve read is five bags will get you ten people, but this is actually the hardest line for anyone to figure out. Macheath, though, is back because the murders start happening again. It has also been said that this line describes a prison sentence that he has just finished, five murders got him ten years.
Now d’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, after drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash
This is basically the singer/narrator speaking directly to the audience like a town crier. He’s telling rumors or things he’s heard based on conjecture.
And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor
This influx of cash for Macheath, if you know the backstory of the plays as him being a pauper, is more circumstantial that perhaps MacHeath is up to no good.
Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?
Our boy, of course being Macheath, is now starting to break from his usual pattern and now becomes more of the focus of attention. Spending like a sailor puts needless attention on old Macheath and that’s against his normal modus operandi.
Now Jenny Diver, Sukey Tawdry, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Lotte Lenya was put into the song by Louis Armstrong and is actually one of the writer’s (Kurt Weill) widow. These women, in the operas are MacHeath’s wives. He is not only a thief, a murderer, but also a polygamist. Lotte Lenya’s name was changed from Polly Peachum.
Oh, the line forms on the right now that Macky’s back in town
These women, all married to MacHeath, also are all murdered by MacHeath. He slices and dices his way through London much like Jack the Ripper later did and there is a correlation between the two as the murder aspect was added inly in the German version. This verse essentially describes the women who fall for MacHeath lining up for their own demise. Saying the line to die starts over there now that MacHeath has come back, most likely from prison.