song with a history

I’ve mentioned before how picky I am with the radio (14 stations I routinely cycle through on the car stereo) but sometimes I’ll listen to a song I don’t particularly like only because I haven’t heard it for a while.

I imagine it goes something like this:

{I’m driving the kids somewhere; a song comes on the radio}
Angel 1: Oh, no…
Me: Hey! I haven’t heard that in fifteen years!
Angel 2: I see no reason to change that.

But there I go, listening to some horrible thing and going through the following predictable stages: “Hey, I remember this!…I wonder why I don’t hear it more often…Oh, that’s why.”

Sometimes, though, I end up with a profound moment of “What the heck?” when I plug into what a song is really about, as opposed to the previous-decade-me who just thought it was an okay song. And that’s what happened when I listened last week to Bobby Darin’s version of Mack the Knife.

For once, I’m not overthinking. The song lyrics say, in effect, that women will line up to be with a man who randomly kills people. And yet it hit number one (according to Billboard’s Top 100) and a grammy for record of the year.

I know the song has a history. I looked it up on that source of all things musical (wikipedia) and yes, it came from an opera and it was supposed to be about a bad guy etc. But the Bobby Darin version, the one most popular in the US, goes beyond making MacHeath into an anti-hero and calls him “our boy,” as if un-motivated mass murders are nothing more than a cute foible. I mean, nobody’s perfect, right?

Would someone mind explaining to me the appeal of the song? Because I’m not remembering it now.


  1. monica

    Like you, my husband dislikes the song for its lyrics (and I think, because his mother’s name is Lucy). I can’t help liking it because I was brainwashed by my extended family before I had a clue what it was about :). To me, the music is joyful and danceable, so different from the message.

  2. Amy Deardon

    At least for me, songs link to certain things that are going on in my life, and when I hear the song later I remember those things. I don’t usually listen to the lyrics, but if I do I can be surprised and not always pleased. Sad.

  3. Marsha Hubler

    To tell you the truth, I never could understand or learn all the words to the song. It never made sense to me. So I guess I’m in the same club as you. Clueless.
    Marsha Hubler

  4. Marie

    The Nylons version of Chain Gang

    Nice song. Happy and bouncy.

    Then I read a review of a history of chain gangs in the south after the Civil War. The review was graphic enough I decided I shouldn’t read that book while pregnant. It was a way for corrupt officials to make money by framing black men, sentencing them to work, and selling their labor for road building etc. It also served to terrorize the black community.

    1. philangelus

      Yikes! I’ve heard that song maybe twice, so I never paid attention to it, but that will now go on my never-listen-to-it list. 🙁

  5. Ken Rolph

    Why not listen to something pleasant and innocuous, say, Good Golly Miss Molly?

    I’ve been delving into the music of my youth lately, courtesy of a slab of compilation CDs. It’s amazing what the those lyrics were actually about, which we almost never picked up at the time.

    1. philangelus

      I’ve had that experience a number of times. “Mom, did you know what I was singing about?” (Because I could memorize lyrics from a very early age. Thank heaven I didn’t know what half of them meant!0

  6. Pat

    It is a wonderful song, if you hear it sung right. The Bobby Darin version is trash. (I have a better word but I don’t know if you want it in your blog.) Sung properly, it is chilling in its simplicity and matter-of-fact description of sheer evil. No, it’s not a happy song. “Macbeth” isn’t a happy play, either. But the brilliant depiction of evil is an art in itself. Please don’t judge Kurt Weill’s masterpiece on the basis of Bobby Darin’s idiotic garbage.

    1. philangelus

      Whose version would you recommend? Because I could deal with a chilling depiction of evil.

      1. Pat

        The version I like is from the 1954 off-Broadway version of “Three-Penny Opera.” You can hear it here:


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