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On his official site you’ll see a statement from the man himself: “All the lyrics on this website, whether published or unpublished, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, may be downloaded and used in any manner whatsoever.”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.
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.