Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mack the Knife and biblical development

Mack and Jenny

So while I've been on the topic of murder I thought I'd get back to our regular scheduled programming with an analogy regarding the development of the books of the New Testament. The song Mack the knife has an interesting history:  

One of the themes I've addressed regularly is how groups other than the proto-orthodox / proto-catholics produced earlier versions of many of the books of the NT.   This often is a source of confusion and debate.  So I thought I'd give an example from a song that underwent all sorts of diverse development and whose history his fully known, the song Mack the Knife.  Here there is no dispute or missing links regarding the history. I have no doubt that Kevin Spacey sang the 2004 version. On the other hand the lyrics, music and style came from the 1959 Bobby Darin version.
Darin’s version picked up its score and lyrics from the 1956 Louis Armstrong version. Armstrong’s lyrics came from the 1954 Blitzstein translation from the German and the score from that came from 1928 Bertolt Brecht lyrics.  Brechts lyrics were originally paired Kurt Weill’s score, The Ballad of Mackie Messer, written for his wife Lotta Lenya (link to her singing it ).  But Armstrong was familiar with the version as abridged by Ernie Kovacs, which had the dark cabaret feel (listen to original Brecht).  Going back further the idea for the song came from Harald Paulsen (also in German), and he was modifying a folk tale that was based on a medieval German song whose origins are unknown.

So who wrote Mack the Knife? Clearly the “canonical” version is Darin’s but can I really talk about Bobby Darin as the author while he openly acknowledges his debt to Armstrong? Moreover, if I move fron just considering style and start asking questions about what the song means I need to look at the context, the 1928 Three Penny Opera. But that’s a modified version of the 1728 Beggar’s Opera. Most of the ideas for “Mack the Knife” come from Gay’s ballad opera, and there is a more primitive version of the song there. But that opera’s lyrics were based on Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope’s play in 1716.
Are those the original? Now imagine I asserted that God authored this song, based on historical events. Well the underlying historical events happened in the late 17th century and it was Pope and Swift who would have been inspired. Darin never claimed any sort of special inspiration but Mack the Knife stabilized in the 1950′s with his version.   We have hundreds of records involving dozens or artists and million of copies of versions that agree on both lyrics, score from the 1950s and 60s. That doesn’t mean the two and a half centuries prior the song was stable.    And this Darin stability ran in both directions with modern German versions show influence from Darin, for example this Dean Baxster, take.

There is no single author.  The song evolved, from a variety influences.  Earlier versions exist and give us insights.  The modern Jazz, English language ballad has a culture but what gives the song its bite are the hints of the earlier cultures.
And this is precisely what is meant when evolution of various biblical books is discussed. For example Bultmann's theory how the legends formed into a saying gospel, the Signs Gospel, which became a proto-John, which evolved towards canonical John.  Q and Mark form Ur-Lukas (proto-Luke in the diagram to the left), which migrate towards canonical Luke with Marcion's Luke (Gospel of the Lord) coming before or after.  Similarly for Moses books, the first five books of the bible that have multiple strands with alternative theologies.   When these notions come up think about how Mack the Knife evolved:

Variants on Mack the Knife:
Darin / classical versions:

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