Songs And More Songs By Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer

Rhino Records, 1997

REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert


Ninety percent of all American music historians will draw a complete and utter blank at the name Tom Lehrer. Find the other ten percent, though -- perhaps fans of comedy radio show host Dr. Demento -- and their eyes will gleam knowingly and they'll begin to snicker. Yes, I said snicker. There is something irreverently underhanded about Lehrer's music. In his time, he was a musical terrorist, planting bombs of songs under the establishments of his day, and a good deal of his humor still rings true.

Lehrer, a tenured professor of mathematics at Harvard University, recorded three albums of comedy songs between 1953 and 1966, after which he retired, becoming one of the most celebrated non-performers in comedy history. His work continues to resurface periodically, and despite a need in many cases to understand the historical context in which it was recorded, remains evilly funny. (Anyone who saw and heard Mandy Patinkin warbling Lehrer's "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park" on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Chicago Hope has experienced Lehrer's backhanded humor and clever lyrics.)

This CD is a compilation of Lehrer's first two albums, as well as four tracks of orchestrated versions recorded in 1960 and one until-now unreleased track -- and it is very, very funny. "Comedians" (and I use the word loosely) like Adam Sandler and Chris Rock would do well to sit down and take some copious notes. Lehrer manages to be hilarious without ever crossing the line of social taboos, and bear in mind these are Eisenhower-era social taboos.

As an artist, Lehrer was fond of harpooning swollen egos and excessively respected social institutions, and he never misses his targets. Harvard University ("Fight Fiercely Harvard"), academia ("Lobachevsky"), American small time life ("My Hometown"), and Christmas mercantilism ("A Christmas Carol") all get their turn, and the humor remains fresh over forty years after it was recorded.

Lehrer was not without social consciousness, and for his time was a rather outspoken activist. "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie" is a vicious attack on Southern prejudice, "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be" is a barbed commentary on American nuclear testing, and "We Will All Go Together When We Go" is a scientist's bitter commentary on the folly of nuclear weaponry in general. When you consider his work in its historical framework, it becomes even more amazing; this was the fifties in America. One didn't say such things, or criticize the government.

Finally, there are the songs that are just -funny-. "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park", "Masochism Tango", "The Hunting Song", "Elements", "When You Are Old And Grey"…the list goes on and on, as do the laughs. Special note has to go to "I Got It From Agnes", a previously unissued Lehrer track -- and indeed, one can see why it was unissued. You can only push fifties taboos so far.

Despite repeated beseechment, Lehrer has not recorded since 1966, content to teach and remain in academia -- as he put it in a 1996 interview quoted in the CD jacket, "I liked high school, too, but I don't see a need to go back." It's our luck that for a little while, he did spend time at the keyboard, and more our luck that Rhino saw fit to bring out this loving tribute. For anyone who both enjoys comedy and has some remnant of historical awareness, Songs And More Songs By Tom Lehrer is more than worth it.

Rating: A

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© 1999 Duke Egbert and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rhino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.