FEATURE: Appreciating Tom Lehrer's Musical Genius

"Spring is here, spring is here / Life is skittles, life is beer / I think the loveliest time of year is the Spring / Don't you? 'Course you do"

So begins Tom Lehrer's seasonal classic 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park'. Yes, you've read that right; it's a romantic ode to a new relationship based on going to an arboreal location and despatching members of an avian species. It's a brilliantly witty and spritely tune, capturing that sudden change of mood everyone experiences when the temperature rises a little, the sun comes out and birdsong fills the air. It just happens to also be about killing off said birds. And maybe a squirrel or two as the speaker suggests enthusiastically towards the end of the song.


The song perfectly sums up the humour and lyricism that define much of Lehrer's work. It's blackly comic and very catchy, accompanied at all times by his expert piano playing. Whilst Lehrer's lyrics are instantly memorable and easily appreciated, it can be easy to forget how musically talented he was too. Often aping musical styles, Lehrer could easily switch between these to suit his particular mood. In one particularly brilliant moment, he deconstructs the song 'My Darling Clementine' and runs the gamut of musical stylings from Mozart to Gilbert and Sullivan (in which he starts to sound a lot like Danny Kaye). It's masterful and still hilarious to boot.

A mathematician first and foremost, Lehrer first started writing songs as an undergraduate to entertain his friends. He also served in the US Army, notably stationed at Los Alamos (the influence of which is clear in the song 'It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier') and went on to teach political science at MIT. However, it was his songwriting skill that won out, performing in nightclubs in Boston. Famously, the author Isaac Asimov saw him onstage during one of these performances. 

Lehrer found fame through word of mouth as people spoke enthusiastically about his particular brand of satire, particularly thanks to the students on the Harvard campus who bought the first record he put together. My own discovery of Lehrer was thanks to a group of students making a dodgy cassette tape one night, my dad inheriting it post-university and losing it down the back of our cassette cupboard. It was discovered when I was about 10 as the family engaged in one of those slightly ineffectual clean-outs and we put on the tape in a battered old cd-cassette combo. A fair amount of roaring laughter later and a love of the Lehrer was born.

Where once my dad had made slightly dodgy cassette tapes, I followed. An English module in Year 7 was based around the idea of a ballad and we had to track down our own and bring them in to share with the class. Remembering that Lehrer wrote a song entitled 'The Irish Ballad', I played it to the assembled 11 year olds and watched as my teacher got more and more uncomfortable as the song went on. It's about a young Irish woman murdering her family in various comical ways before confessing all to the police because 'lying she knew was a sin'. My friends thought it was brilliant and I passed around some more cassettes to them, spreading that love a little further.

There's an impish sense to Lehrer's music that perfectly appealed to slightly mischievous 11 year olds with little else to rebel with. Although his songs deal with some weighty topics, they do so in a disarmingly innocent fashion. For years, I thought 'I Got It From Agnes' (known as 'I Got It From Sally' in earlier versions) was a nice little ditty about the pervasiveness of the common cold rather than sexually transmitted diseases. The references to incest and bestiality went completely over my head as I sang along; 'She got it from her daddy / Who just gives her everything'. It is a song that rewards on repeated listenings whilst growing up, not least because I wasn't worldly wise enough to realise its actual subject matter, but because the satirical edge becomes more keenly felt when you witness the slightly odd relationship developments of your friendship group (though, as far as I'm aware, neither family members or dogs featured in this).

There's a good chance you too will have come into contact with Lehrer at school, perhaps without even realising it. I've lost track of the amount of people I've played his stuff too who have gone "Oh this is the guy who did 'The Elements Song'!" It seems many a chemistry class was subjected to Lehrer rattling off the Periodic Table to 'Major-General's Song' by Gilbert and Sullivan. In fact, Daniel Radcliffe even performed it once on The Graham Norton Show and delighted this Lehrer fan (and one friend from school who got back in touch to ask if I'd seen it). I have yet to learn beyond 'Therrrrre's Antimony, Arsenic, Aluminium, Selenium...'. 

Lehrer's political satire (check out 'We Will All Go Together When We Go' for a perfect ode to Cold War paranoia and equality for humanity) was what made his name, going on to write for the US version of That Was The Week That Was and appearing here in the UK on The Frost Report. Though he has since finished performing in public, his influence over musical satirists and comedy is quite the legacy.

For me, Tom Lehrer will always bring back the memory of being sat around the kitchen table with my family, listening to the crackly old cassette whirring through ten of his songs. We learnt the words almost instantly and it became the soundtrack for many a car journey. Now that I'm older, I've learnt to appreciate the political bite that bursts forth from a lot of these songs and the witticisms that lay within. Every year, when Spring arrives, it's time to dust off the old Lehrer collection (on CD now - the original cassette is back in the dusty cupboard awaiting another clear out) and have a good old singalong.

Now, if on Sunday you're free, why don't you come with me and we'll poison some pigeons in the park? Or, you know,  just sing. Probably safer. I don't really mind pigeons.

Honourable Mentions (most of these can be found from the links above):

The Hunting Song
Lobachevsky
Oedipus Rex
The Masochism Tango
Bright College Days

- Becky

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