“Christmas time is here, by golly / Disapproval would be folly / Deck the halls with hunks of holly / Fill the cup and don’t say ‘when.'” So sings musical satirist Tom Lehrer on his hit 1959 album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer — which was recorded in March of that year, not that it stopped him from taking an out-of-season jab at the holidays. “Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens / Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens / Even though the prospect sickens / Brother, here we go again.” If it seems to you that he takes a dim view of Christmas, you should hear how he sings about everything else.
Now, more easily than ever, you can hear how Lehrer sings about everything else, by simply downloading his music from his web site. “All copyrights to lyrics or music written or composed by me have been relinquished, and therefore such songs are now in the public domain,” he writes. “All of my songs that have never been copyrighted, having been available for free for so long, are now also in the public domain.” In short, he adds, “I no longer retain any rights to any of my songs.” We posted about the release of those songs themselves into the Public Domain a couple years ago, but last month Lehrer made the songs available online–for a limited time.
Not only is An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer free to stream or download on TomLehrerSongs.com — complete with tracks not available even on Spotify — so is its follow-up Revisited, That Was the Year That Was (featuring performances of the songs he wrote for the American version of That Was the Week That Was) and the three-disc collection The Remains of Tom Lehrer. Together these albums contain all the music Lehrer recorded before he stood up from the piano and became a professor, first of political science and later of mathematics (though he did teach some musical theater as well.)
Given his secular Jewish origins and his obvious disdain for the Mammonistic holiday season (at least “as we celebrate it in the United States”) Lehrer would surely get a laugh from us taking this free release of all his music as a Christmas gift. And yet, like all the best Christmas gifts, it has both a surface value and a deeper one. Despite their topical late-fifties-early-sixties references to things like “new math” and Vatican II, his songs can still make us laugh today. But they can also show younger generations a satirical sensibility they’ve never known: culturally literate, dry with well-placed plunges into the lowbrow, transgressive without cheap crudity, all supported by musical aplomb. Maybe Lehrer decided to make his music free because now, in his tenth decade, he can be sure that nobody will surpass him. Find his music 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 or on Facebook.