The term Renaissance man gets thrown around often, but if there was ever a Renaissance man outside of the Renaissance, it is Tom Lehrer. He began taking piano lessons as a child and soon after began making parodies of popular songs. By the time he went to college, he was playing at parties for beer money. He got enough money together to rent a studio for a day and make his own album. And sold it on his own. While studying mathematics. At Harvard.
He made very few albums and performed far less than even the average performer, but his impact cannot be stressed. He as far more than just a maker of novelty records. He was even more than a direct inspiration for political satirists like Mark Russell and song parody extraordinaries like Weird Al Yankovic. His mixture of great musicianship and pointed satire had a deep impact on kids going to college in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including songwriters like Randy Newman and the barrier-breaking Frank Zappa.
What he proved was that there was an audience for musical truth-telling – even back in the late 1950’s. Tom Lehrer mostly spent his professional life teaching. His music gained a new popularity with the success of Dr. Demento’s radio show and CDs, which featured Tom Lehrer’s music. In a move not likely to inspire many future performers, Tom Lehrer donated all of his songs to the public domain in 2020.
# 10 – Poisoning Pigeons in the Park
There are not many people that can make fun not only of super-sweet songs, but also of people who claim to love the outdoors – just so they can kill the animals living there. There’s also not a lot of songwriters able to not only use the word “strychnine” but rhyme it. This originally came out on Tom Lehrer’s 1959 album, More of Tom Lehrer.
# 9 – L-Y
In the 1970s, The Electric Company would come on right after Sesame Street on PBS. Although it did not last long, The Electric Company helped teach a generation the joy of reading. It was even better with the many songs Tom Lehrer contributed, backed with a large band instead of just a piano. This song is most notable for the Oscar-worthy emotions revealed in his voice. And only Tom Lehrer could get away with writing a children’s song that includes accidental injury, boating accidents and a practical tip for spies.
# 8 – The Definition of a Derivative
There’s a good reason why there aren’t many songs about mathematical concepts. They’re hard to rhyme, let alone dance to. And there’s that little problem of comprehensibility. However, Tom Lehrer actually manages all of this in several mathematical songs, the best of which is this one. The tune is from a 1930s W. Benton Overstreet song, “There’ll be Some Changes Made.” A really nice slant rhyme appears, too. Tom Lehrer sings it in the first few minutes of the video below, which includes a few of his mathematical songs.
# 7 – I Got it From Agnes
Although the “it” is never expressly mentioned, even audiences in the strait-laced world of the 1950s knew this song was about STDs. Tom Lehrer would say that this song wasn’t funny anymore when AIDS appeared. However, it has undergone a revival in the time of COVD and many people today find it funny, indeed. Although he performed the song since the 1950s, he did not record it until 1996 for Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer.
# 6 – A Christmas Carol
Even in the 1950s, Christmas songs were lame. Tom Lehrer’s carol is one bright spot in a sea of sameness. Not only is it jolly and easy to remember, but also points out the true meaning of Christmas – money. It does include snippets from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “God Rest Ye, Merry, Gentlemen” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” and It’s the only carol you can listen to at any time of year. Everybody sing! This originally appeared in the 1959 album, An Evening with Tom Lehrer.
# 5 – The Old Dope Peddler
In a 2015 interview with the Library of Congress, Tom Lehrer stated that Joan Baez sung this as a lullaby to her son. We could not verify this, but it’s totally believable. Case closed for it being on any Top 10 Tom Lehrer song list. It can be a pro-drug or anti-drug song, depending on what you want it to be. The genius is in its flexibility. And that for many years it was banned by the BBC. The shortest song on our list, it originally appeared on the 1959 album, More of Tom Lehrer.
# 4 – The Vatican Rag
Granted, you have to know some Catholic terms to fully understand this look at Catholicism after Vatican II, but do not let that stop you listening to this sly wink and a nudge to one of the world’s major religions. It took Tom Lehrer’s genius to not only pair Catholicism with ragtime, but make the word “genuflect” sound so darn happy. This originally came out on the 1965 album, That Was the Year That Was.
# 3 – Smut
It’s Tom Lehrer. It’s a song about smut. It’s brilliant. What more can be said? It does use a rhyme scheme similar to our #1 entrant on our list of top 10 songs by Tom Lehrer. It also is the only song we can think of that has the word “philately”. It also makes you wonder about the Wizard of Oz. It appeared in the 1965 album, That Was the Year that Was and was part of a 1967 concert in Copenhagen that’s all over YouTube.
# 2 – The Masochism Tango
It was a song like this that made the big record companies of the 1950s nervous, which was why for many years Tom Lehrer sold his albums privately without a label. This is a multi-layered parody, like an onion, will make you cry when peeled – only the tears will be of laughter. Not only are tangos poked fun at, but so is love, so is S & M and so is, even, the cliché “my heart is in my hand.” Tom Lehrer even bends the word “agony” so it perfectly rhymes with “mahogany.” This has been a beloved song on both sides of the Atlantic for decades.
# 1 – We Will All Go Together When We Go
In a 1967 concert in Copenhagen, Tom Lehrer said to his audience that he liked to end on a positive note. And so, we end our top 10 songs of Tom Lehrer with this look at a literally heart-warming subject – global thermonuclear war. It’s just as pertinent today as it was decades ago. This gets the #1 slot not just because of the topic, but because of Tom Lehrer’s use of the English language, approaching E. E. Cummings proportions. He’s able to not only make slant rhymes, but almost-falling-over rhymes. He’s able to use enjambment — make rhymes using the middle instead of the end of words in a line. It’s amazing what one guy can do with nothing but a piano and his intelligence.
Top 10 Songs of Tom Lehrer article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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