Before entering the field of music entertainment, Tom Lehrer taught math at the University of California at Santa Cruz. With a few gruesome songs in mind, he wrote and recorded them on vinyl, selling them at the university for a few dollars. Eventually students bought the inexpensive lps and resold them for a profit. Soon Lehrer developed a small following. Initially, his songs dealt with macabre themes but eventually graduated to political satire, always keeping the grotesque side of the music in the lyrics.
It wasn’t until Lehrer’s music gained airplay on England radio stations that the music developed a larger following and Lehrer began to tour. His work was translated to German as well as other languages. His morbid style fit the European sentiment. Still, success eluded him in the US, that is, until his lp “That Was the Year That Was” (1965) was released. His gift for political satire combined with his macabre lyrics was the right combination to win over American audiences.
I have selected songs ranging from his macabre days to his satiric heyday. Here they are:
“When You are Old and Gray” is a song about ‘carpe diem’, that is, seize the day. He describes the curse of getting old and equates it with moral disgust. This attitude pokes fun of the Fifties style of songs where love was forever.
“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” continues Lehrer’s jabs at sentimental love by showing a young couple in love killing the birdies and other animals in the park. The up-tempo happy song replaces the act of lovers feeding the creatures of the park with that of them murdering the unsuspecting fowl with chilling yet cheery results.
“I Hold Your Hand in Mine” extends the lovers’ theme with a slight twist on the old ‘holding hands’ approach to puppy love. His sickest song is also his most popular.
“The Irish Ballad” continues the sick humor approach to popular ‘ballads’. These sing-along style songs are mocked here with some very morbid lyrics. He even mocks the audience in the introduction to the song who may have any designs on singing along.
“My Home Town” eliminates the sentimentality of songs about growing up in a small friendly community. Lehrer’s home town is a grotesque version of “Happyville”, typical of Fifties family TV shows.
“The Old Dope Peddler” extends the satiric approach to singing about small towns in a sentimentally romantic way. Here the night doesn’t bring love. It brings out drug deals.
“I Got it from Agnes” says a lot without actually saying anything, but once you put the appropriate disease to the pronoun “it”, you’ve got a song about unprotected sex, STDs, bestiality, incest, homosexuality (a taboo subject in the Fifties), and fellatio.
“The Masochism Tango” mocks the modern dance movement of the Fifties as an exercise in self-abuse. The song echoes the rhythms of a tango with the appropriately abusive description in the lyrics.
“We Will All Go Together When We Go” turns self-abuse to global-abuse as Lehrer writes a political satire to point out the futility of nuclear weapons, a common concern in the Fifties. The songwriter describes graphically the results of an A-Bomb while annihilating any hopes of surviving the big blast with bomb shelters or by ducking under one’s desk.
“National Brotherhood Week” wraps up the political agenda that Lehrer targets. As NBW is foisted on the public at the time Malcolm X is killed and Martin Luther King is assassinated, Lehrer pounds home the 7-day event as a hypocritical white wash of then current racial tensions.
And there you have it. Tom Lehrer singing about severed hands, cannibalism, nuclear holocaust and racial intolerance with wit, sarcasm, and a touch of the macabre. For more on the grotesque music of Professor Lehrer, visit his site at http://www.tomlehrer.org/ for some great cover versions of his songs in other languages in addition to English or http://www.casualhacker.net/tom.lehrer/jmazner/lehrhtml.html for a thorough back-story on the singer.