Tom Lehrer Releases His All of Catchy and Savage Musical Satire Into the Public Domain

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 Thanks­giv­ingsChrist­mases (“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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.

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Comments (14)
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  • nima says:

    Tom Lehrer, prophet of the mil­len­ni­um.

  • Anne Pearson says:

    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 .

  • Tony says:

    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.

  • Arlene Teck says:

    Thank you so much Mr. Lehrer! Your music has con­tin­ued to bring plea­sure to me for many years!

  • megagreat says:

    Randy Rain­bow keeps musi­cal satire alive & well

  • Barb Southworth says:

    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,

    Barb South­worth

  • JJ Dion says:

    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

  • Mary-Lucille Hindmarch says:

    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

  • Helmut E. Zitzwitz says:

    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.

  • Judy Weis says:

    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!

  • cody peterson shearer says:

    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.

  • Drew Lobenstein says:

    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

  • Elisabeth M Miles says:

    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!

  • Erin L Griffith says:

    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.
    most sin­cere­ly!
    E. Cage Syler

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