Friday, April 11, 2008

Get to know Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer claims he "went from adolescence to senility, trying to bypass maturity."

He earned earned his BA in math (Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa) from Harvard in 1947, when he was just 18. Tom later taught at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley, but is best known for hilarious songwriting, much of it political satire in the 1950s and 60s. I first discovered Tom when Mad magazine bound-in a "flexi" record of his famous Hunting Song.

I always will remember,
'Twas a year ago November,
I went out to hunt some deer
On a morning bright and clear.
I went and shot the maximum the game laws would allow:
Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow.

I was in no mood to trifle,
I took down my trusty rifle
And went out to stalk my prey.
What a haul I made that day!
I tied them to my fender, and I drove them home somehow:
Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow.

The law was very firm, it
Took away my permit,
The worst punishment I ever endured.
It turned out there was a reason,
Cows were out of season,
And one of the hunters wasn't insured.

People ask me how I do it,
And I say "There's nothin' to it,
You just stand there lookin' cute,
And when something moves, you shoot!"
And there's ten stuffed heads in my trophy room right now:
Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a pure-bred Guernsey cow.

Lehrer's musical career was brief: he said that he had performed just 109 shows and written 37 songs over 20 years. Tom developed a significant cult following in the US and abroad. Britain's Princess Margaret was a fan, and so am I. I can still sing lyrics I first heard in seventh grade.

This is the Vatican Rag.

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison,
Doin' the Vatican Rag.

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional.
There the guy who's got religion'll
Tell you if your sin's original.
If it is, try playin' it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!

So get down upon your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Make a cross on your abdomen,
When in Rome do like a Roman;
Ave Maria,
Gee, it's good to see ya.
Gettin' ecstatic an' sorta dramatic an'
Doin' the Vatican

And here's Oedipus Rex

From the Bible to the popular song,
There's one theme that we find right along;
Of all ideals they hail as good,
The most sublime is motherhood.

There was a man though, who it seems,
Once carried this ideal to extremes.
He loved his mother and she loved him,
And yet his story is rather grim.

There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex,
You may have heard about his odd complex.
His name appears in Freud's index
'Cause he loved his mother.

His rivals used to say quite a bit
That as a monarch he was most unfit.
But still in all they had to admit
That he loved his mother.

Yes, he loved his mother like no other,
His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.
One thing on which you can depend is,
He sure knew who a boy's best friend is.

When he found what he had done,
He tore his eyes out, one by one.
A tragic end to a loyal son
Who loved his mother.

So be sweet and kind to mother,
Now and then have a chat.
Buy her candy or some flowers,
Or a brand new hat.
But maybe you had better let it go at that.

Or you may find yourself with a quite complex complex
And you may end up like Oedipus.
I'd rather marry a duck-billed platypus
Than end up like old Oedipus Rex.

See: and for info and search for "Tom Lehrer" on Youtube for some great videos. There's one fantastic video that uses clips from Star Wars movies with Tom's We Will All Go Together When We Go (about nuclear anihilation). A lot of Tom's lyrics are online, too, including here. There's even musical accompanyment so you can sing along.

In an amazing coincidence, on Wednesday I turned my buddy Gary onto Tom Lehrer, and I later found out that Tuesday was Tom's 80th brithday. Very spooky. Happy birthday, Tom.

Tom Leher's work is an important part of Baby Boomer culture. If you somehow managed to miss it, or want to go back, click on the links above. We old farts have an important duty to make Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers aware of Tom. They may not understand all of the historical references, but most of his humor is timeless.

"So long Mom, I'm off to drop the bomb, so don't wait up for me."

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