The Simple Things

The story of songs



Most swing songs put you in a good mood. So, we’ll forgive you if you’ve smiled, tapping your foot along to Mack the Knife without realising it’s actually about a violent criminal. In fact, ‘Mack’ can be traced to a specific violent criminal: ‘Honest’ Jack Sheppard. Infuriatin­g the 18th-century London authoritie­s with numerous prison escapes, he became something of a celeb

– it’s said women bearing flowers lined the route to his execution. Jack ( possibly THE ‘Jack the lad’) inspired a contempora­ry smash hit, the comic The Beggar’s Opera. In turn, in 1920s Germany, Bertolt Brecht took the story and reworked it as anti-authoritar­ian musical The Threepenny Opera, with the main character a Mackie Messer (‘Messer’ meaning ‘knife’ in German). The popular English version was translated for a 1950s New York show, knocking a few gruesome crimes off the lyrics in the process. Louis Armstrong gave the song its swing, but Bobby Darin’s 1959 cover took it to the top of the chart (despite being banned by the BBC). It’s since been performed by many including Ella Fitzgerald, Nick Cave, and Robbie Williams. In fact, it’s said to be the United States' third most popular tune… ever! Proving that sometimes, crime does indeed pay.

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