Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 66:14 July 13, 2000 p.14

A World-Class Satirist:
Tom Lehrer Continues to Shine
On A New CD Album

(original title: Tom Lehrer's "Remains" Remain Very Much Alive)

"'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun."

If Tom Lehrer had written only those two lines, depicting in a nutshell the amoral crassness of German scientists and their use by politicians in the arms and space races, he would still have earned a berth among satirists who must be considered immortal.
Surprisingly few of Lehrer's 46 recorded songs are now out of date, and even those which are, in part, include unforgettable zingers, like these from the "MLF Lullaby" on the European Multi-Lateral Force:

"We've got the missiles, peace to determine,
And one of the fingers on the button will be German....
Once all the Germans were warlike and mean,
But that couldn't happen again.
We taught them a lesson in nineteen eighteen,
And they've hardly bothered us since then."

Two hundred productions of the Cameron Macintosh musical based on his songs, Tomfoolery have led to Canadian and British-- though, tellingly, so far no American-- original cast albums.

Thirty years ago, when questioned about the accuracy of arrangements printed in The Tom Lehrer Songbook (which had not been written by him), he promptly took out the LP, put it on the turntable, and mischievously intoned: "Let's look at the urtext!" That work's sequel, Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, published by Pantheon Press in New York, is still in print, though neither complete nor definitive. Lehrerphiles must devote themselves to listening to [the recordings.

Among the songs in] the new, nearly complete 3-CD collection issued on Rhino Records--"The Remains of Tom Lehrer" --many of Lehrer's songs have been translated into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Norwegian, Spanish, and Swedish. ("Lobachevsky" was also performed in Russian by this writer in Leningrad in 1971.) But the English-language versions recorded by Lehrer himself remain definitive. (Even when performing in Köln, in 1966, Lehrer narrated in German but sang in English. [And German performers have not been able to bring themselves to sing his line from "National Brotherhood Week": "Everybody hates the Jews!" Instead they rather incongruously come up with "Now they even hate the Pope!" Georg Kreisler has made a career of his "Tauben vergiften im Park," which is a rip-off, without the alliteration, of Lehrer's far superior "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park." Gerhard Bronner's "Meine liebe gute Frau" is almost a literal translation of Lehrer's "She's My Girl.")]

And though he has not performed in public for a quarter of a century, no one--not even Pete Seeger, Steve Allen, Bing Crosby, or the Smothers Brothers (all of whom have performed Lehrer songs)-- has been able to match his delivery for perfection of satirical tone and timing.

The Rhino set is missing only two known Lehrer songs, and parts of two others: "The SAC Song," written for the 1963 feature film about the Strategic Air Command, A Gathering of Eagles, was, according to a June 17, 1997 internet chat session with Lehrer (reproduced in excerpt form in the album liner notes), "written to illustrate a particular point in the plot of the movie and is not clever enough to be of interest out of context."

His parody on "Clementine," also known as "If Composers Wrote Folksongs," is missing the fourth of five verses. Originally, Lehrer had written-- but later deleted--a delicious parody of Gian Carlo Menotti for that verse. [In 1984 this writer filled in the missing verse with "A Clementine Kaddish," but Lehrer himself never performed it, so it is not on the album.]

The album does include half a dozen songs never before released: "That's Mathematics"--set originally to the tune of "That's Entertainment," but re-set to an original tune when permission to use that standard was denied; three educational songs written originally for The Electric Company, including "The Hound Song," set to "Caro nome" from Rigoletto; "Selling Out," a quartet, in which Lehrer sings all the parts himself, written as an insert for a musical play called "Park" [(he also wrote a number called "Ice Cream" for it, not included on the album)]; and best of all, the humorous quasi-catalogue of Jewish holidays, "(I'm Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica."
[Said catalogue includes Shevuos ("in East Saint Louis"); Purim ("those Eastern winters, I can't endure 'em); Rosh Hashona ("in Arizona"); and Yom Kippuh [sic] ("way down in Mississipuh").

With Lehrer's blessing, in 1992 the catalogue was completed with a song, to his melody, entitled "Goot Yuntif":
"But I hear cavilling--
Why limit all your travelling?
Have a Pesach in your face--ach! Go away!
Spend Simchas Torah in Bora Bora.
Sh'mini Atzares spend in Paris or Calais.
A travel agent can surely book us
To Angkor Wat for Tu Bish'vat
And then what not for Sukkos!?
Like Samoa for Yom Hashoah;
Middle-of-Nowhere for Lag B'Omer;
Yerushalayim for Yom Ha'atzma-oot.
The cantor will be sure to kick us
If we fail to mention Slichos;
You can try Somalia
For fasting at Gedalia;
Though if you love to fish you'll love
The Vis(h)tula at Tisha B'av.
Goot Yuntif! So make it goot!"

(Copyright 1992 by Leonard Lehrman)

Some day perhaps he'll record that too.]

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