If the age of American musical satire is behind us, Tom Lehrer may have ended it simply by being unsurpassably good at it. No less a comedy-song master than “Weird Al” Yankovic still walks among us, of course, but he specializes in broad parody rather than biting irony. Despite having retired from public life, Lehrer too lives on, and at 92 has taken action to assure his work a longer existence by releasing it into the public domain. On his official site you’ll see a statement from the man himself: “All the lyrics on this website, whether published or unpublished, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, may be downloaded and used in any manner whatsoever.”
Directly below his message you’ll find a list of nearly 100 of Lehrer’s songs, which when clicked lead to downloadable PDFs of their lyrics, and in some cases their sheet music as well. Ready for you to repurpose are such signature numbers as “The Masochism Tango,” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” and “The Elements,” a version of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance that name-checks each and every one of the physical elements known in 1959.
That Lehrer has also included the “Aristotle version” of “Elements” — in full, “There’s earth and air and fire and water” — just hints at the many playful touches to be found in this collection of materials.
Not just a singer-songwriter but a mathematician who worked at both the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and the National Security Agency during the Cold War, Lehrer didn’t shy away from addressing the technical, the political, and the topical in his music. “Wernher von Braun” sends up the rocket scientist secretly recruited by the United States from defeated Nazi Germany (“Don’t say that he’s hypocritical / Say rather that he’s apolitical”). “New Math” gives a similar treatment to the Sputnik-spooked U.S.’s ill-advised scramble to reform mathematics education, and I got a laugh out of the song in childhood despite growing up long after the retrenchment of New Math itself.
Whether hearing or reading Lehrer’s lyrics today, one marvels at both how they’ve retained their bite, and how widely they were considered too edgy for airplay in the 1950s. The BBC, for example, banned ten of the twelve songs on his debut album, including “Be Prepared,” which spins the Boy Scout’s motto into an ode to misbehavior (“Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well / Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell”). But now we’re free to craft new contexts to make them troubling again, and with the holidays coming up, this assures us very Lehrer Thanksgivings, Christmases (“Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens / Even though the prospect sickens”) and Hanukkahs (“Here’s to Judas Maccabeus / Boy, if he could only see us / Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica”) to come. Enter his site here.
Hear Tom Lehrer Sing the Names of 102 Chemical Elements to the Tune of Gilbert & Sullivan
Tom Lehrer’s Mathematically and Scientifically Inclined Singing and Songwriting, Animated
Celebrate Harry Potter’s Birthday with Song. Daniel Radcliffe Sings Tom Lehrer’s Tune “The Elements”
We’re All Doomed!: Weird Al Yankovic Tries to Make Sense of the Disastrous Trump vs. Biden “Debate”
The Music, Books & Films Liberated into the Public Domain in 2020: Rhapsody in Blue, The Magic Mountain, Sherlock, Jr., and More
Every Possible Melody Has Been Copyrighted, and They’re Now Released into the Public Domain
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
Tom Lehrer, prophet of the millennium.
Thankyou Mr Lehrer for the hours of enjoyment I had singing your songs at Birmingham University , some nuclear physics students Brought your records back from a visit to the States . We loved singing the songs banned by the BBC . Also saw you perform in London . Finally parted with my records in the 90 s . Still thoroughly enjoy hearing the songs even at 83 .
One of my favorites when I was growing up (I’m 74). My parents had his first album on a 7” vinyl record and I bought the rest of his albums as a young adult. I can still sing along with most of them.
Thanks so much, Tom. Glad to hear you are still with us. May you live as long as you wish.
Thank you so much Mr. Lehrer! Your music has continued to bring pleasure to me for many years!
Randy Rainbow keeps musical satire alive & well
Hello, Mr. Lehrer,
I nearly wept -wept, I say!- when your
wonderful, hilarious, obnoxious-to-the
stuffed shirts community was released
for all and sundry!
All I can say is “Thank you, thank you,
Mr. Lehrer, for endless laughs on the
stuffed shirts (there’s a plethora of
same in the Congress).
Mr. Lehrer, long may you be well,
Dear Mr Lehrer, I join in this host of well-wishers in expressing my gratitude at both this magnanimous gesture, as well as the lifetime of joy you’ve given us with your delightful ditties & performances! Like other commentators above, my Dad brought your 7” & subsequent LPs into our home, & they crept stealthily into our subconscious, establishing a permanent foothold. For years, we thought you were our precious little family secret…until your songs were featured on “That Was The Week That Was”! What a delight! As a Boy Scout, Catholic and Christmas fan, you can imagine how THOSE 3 songs of yours have informed my life experiences! May your Works live ON!! Much Respect, Admiration & Gratitude!!! JJ Dion – Post Falls, Idaho
At a sedate girls’ grammar (ie high) school in the UK almost 50 yrs ago we cd always persuade our history mistress to allow us to play The Vatican Rag on the grounds that it had ‘something to do with the Reformation’ . . .I was a devotee (still am) of the pithy Lehrer lyrics & wonderfully apropos tunes -with thanks & in admiration, Mary Lucille HINDMARCH
I still have many of your original records and enjoy them at least once a year, introducing you to the younger people who never heard of you. My favorites are still the Vatican Rag and when Alabama gets the bomb. To be a good comedian takes a healthy understanding of philosophy and the realization that we have to go a long way to become civilized. Now at age 88, I wish you well. You forced people to think—all good wishes to you.
I have been a fan since the ‘50s when as a teenager I discovered the small record that I played over and over. I can still sing the songs today. You broke my heart when you retired from performing during the Nixon years- that don’t seem so bad compared to today.
Thank you thank you for all the enjoyment you have provided to us all!
Tom Lehrer performed in our family living room in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He played with song writer Harry Warren—“Lullaby on Broadway”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” fame. Not an evening to easily forget. Two bookmarks from different musical eras. Both individuals arrived at their craft through unusual paths; one a math prof, the other a street car conductor.
At seventy four years of age…I am still enjoying your songs that I have been listening to and singing since I was in Junior High school. A number of times I have seen the stage shows of your work and sing along with each version you have changed slightly.
I was President of the Parkman Junior High Pigeon Club back in 1959 and have since become a master breeder of pure bred pigeons. I am published in five languages for my work with pigeons and pigeon genetics. I am a member of the NPA Hall of Fame and I was awarded the National Pigeon Association Lifetime Achievement Award two years ago at the NPA National Convention in Amarillo, Texas. To this day my very favorite of your works is still Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. When they see us coming the birdies all try and hide….but they can’t resist pop corn (one version) Peanuts (the other version) when coated with cyan hide… Your brilliant political insights and work plus your wonderful curious and creative mind still inspire this life long school teacher and college professor… Know you have impacted the lives of way more that you can possibly see. Especially me….Drew Lobenstein Reseda, California
The soundtrack of my very happy childhood consists of the Herb Alpert Tijuana brass, My fair lady soundtrack and ALL of the Tom Lehrer songs. My parents were diplomats living all over the world and often offended host families with Tom Lehrer’s songs. We listened to them all the time and I love them with all my heart, and listen to them very frequently. My children, now adults in their twenties, had to be repeatedly warned that others might find the songs offensive. We would listen on our long commute to school, and I’d drop them off singing national brotherhood week, or the vatican rag, and I’d tremble at the thought of some of the exclusive, affluent staff’s reactions. I still love your music, and your short talks between songs and want to thank you for the immense pleasure I experience singing along and sharing your music with like minded friends and family. Thank you Tom Lehrer!
Mr Lehrer! You’re alive!!! You are such an amazing man! I’m 51 years old and have been listening to your music since I was a child hearing The Dr. Demento Show. I have made it an important point to find all of your material and turn as many people on to your genius music as I possibly can. I hope to see you somewhere along the fantastic journey, sir! I imagine I’ll see you somewhere there in the brightest of the light. That you have given open permission to your music, for others to do with it what they will, is so awesome! You’re a beautiful, shining light to so many people that you’ll never even meet!!! But, we know you,sir! Thank you for being such an inspiration to my musical creations.
E. Cage Syler