The Library of Congress has made its annual announcement of additions to the National Recording Registry. High on the list for 2015 are covers of “Mack the Knife” by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin, who between them did more than anyone to make the song one of the top hits of the 20th century. Established in 2000 under the National Recording Preservation Act, the Registry honors recordings recognized for their cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s aural legacy. The Library of Congress preserves for posterity each recording named to the list. The Registry, according to Acting Librarian David S. Mao, “helps safeguard the record of what we’ve done and who we are.”
“Mack the Knife” started life in 1928 as “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” the opening number in The Threepenny Opera. The song did not attract much attention in the U.S. until Marc Blitzstein’s English adaptation of the show opened off-Broadway in 1954 and ran for 2,707 performances, setting the record at that time for longest-running musical. Armstrong’s recording, completed in a single evening in September 1955, propelled the number into the pop pantheon and added an enduring twist to Blitzstein’s lyric: Lotte Lenya’s presence in the studio during the session (see photo at right) prompted a shout-out from Satchmo, who added her name to Mack’s conquests. (Lenya contributed vocals to a different recording made during the same session.) Darin’s version topped the charts in 1959 and became his signature number. “Mack the Knife” has been recorded hundreds of times, but Armstrong and Darin made it an international hit. Lenya remarked, “A taxi driver whistling his tunes would have pleased [Kurt] more than winning the Pulitzer Prize.” But no taxi driver, or even Pulitzer Prize, offers an honor comparable to inclusion in the National Recording Registry, which seals Weill’s and Blitzstein’s permanent place in our nation’s cultural heritage.
Actually, it is not the first entry in the Registry for either Weill or Blitzstein. The original cast recording of The Cradle Will Rock was named in 2002, and the Doors’ first album, which includes Weill’s “Alabama Song” (under the title “Whisky Bar”) made it last year.
Announcement from the Library of Congress
Complete listing of the National Recording Registry
Article on “Mack the Knife” from Smithsonian magazine