Follow TV Tropes


Music / Songs by Tom Lehrer

Go To
Click to see the cover for the 1958 British release 
Click to see the cover for the "Newly Recorded" 1966 version 
Songs by Tom Lehrer is the first album of songs by humorous songwriter Tom Lehrer, released in 1953. Lehrer wrote these songs when he was a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Harvard and recorded them in a one-hour session at a studio for rent in Boston. Since Lehrer, paying for the release out of pocket, only put out 400 copies, the original album was extremely rare for years, although it got a British release on Decca Records in 1958 and Lehrer recorded a new version of the album for his then-current label, Reprise Records, in 1966. Since then it's been reissued several times, allowing many more to experience the Joy of Tom.

In 1960, a Live Album featuring the same songs with additional banter between them was issued in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. The U.K. version was titled Tom Lehrer Revisited and was assembled from performances recorded November 23 and 24, 1959 at the Kresge Auditorium of MIT in Cambridge, MA; this version was the only one to be released on CD. The Australian version was titled Tom Lehrer Discovers Australia (and Vice-Versa) and used performances recorded March 21, 1960, in Melbourne and May 4, 1960, in Sydney. The U.S. version used the same title and almost the same cover as the U.K. version, but used the MIT performances on side 1 and the Australian performances on side 2. All three versions had different track sequences.

In 2004 the album was inducted into the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically and aesthetically important."

Tracklist note 

Side One
  1. "Fight Fiercely Harvard" (1:25)
  2. "The Old Dope Peddler" (1:27)
  3. "Be Prepared" (1:32)
  4. "The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be" (2:03)
  5. "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" (1:54)
  6. "Lobachevsky" (3:11)

Side Two

  1. "The Irish Ballad" (3:01)
  2. "The Hunting Song" (1:19)
  3. "My Home Town" (2:39)
  4. "When You Are Old and Gray" (1:52)
  5. "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" (1:28)
  6. "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz" (1:56)

I trope your hand in mine, dear:

  • The Aggressive Drug Dealer: "The Old Dope Peddler".
    He gives the kids free samples,
    Because he knows full well
    That today's young innocent faces
    Will be tomorrow's clientele.
  • Alma Mater Song: "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" is a parody of a Football Fight Song, but Harvard is Tom Lehrer's alma mater. And Harvard later adopted it as an official fight song!
  • Anti-Love Song:
    • "When You Are Old and Gray".
      Since I still appreciate you,
      Let's find love while we may.
      Because I know I'll hate you
      When you are old and gray.
    • "I Hold Your Hand in Mine". Romantic thoughts don't generally extend to cannibalism and (implied) necrophilia.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The final verse of "The Irish Ballad", which describes the exploits of a Self-Made Orphan:
    And when at last the police came by
    Her little pranks she did not deny
    For to do so she would have had to lie...
    And lying, she knew, was a sin.
  • Atomic Hate: "The Wild West" takes the form of a rousing Western song but is actually about atomic testing in New Mexico.
  • Audience Participation Song: Subverted on the live album during the spoken introduction to "The Irish Ballad":
    One of the more important aspects of public folk singing is audience participation, and this happens to be a good song for group singing. So if any of you feel like joining in with me on this song, I'd appreciate it if you would leave — right now.
  • Ballad of X: "The Irish Ballad".
  • Bilingual Bonus: In the recorded version of "Lobachevsky", the reviews from Pravda and Izvestia are, respectively: "There once was a king who had a pet flea," the first line of Modest Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea", and "I must go where the Tsar himself goes on foot," a Russian idiom meaning "I have to go to the bathroom". Lehrer usually substituted nonsense when he performed before an audience whose members were likely to include Russian speakers.
  • Black Comedy: Most of the songs mine pretty dark subjects for humor.
  • Black Comedy Cannibalism:
    • "The Irish Ballad":
      One day when she had nothing to do
      She cut her baby brother in two
      And served him up as an Irish stew
      And invited the neighbours in
    • "My Home Town":
      I remember Dan, the druggist on the corner; he
      Was never mean or ornery
      He was swell
      He killed his mother-in-law and ground her up real well
      And sprinkled just a bit
      Over each banana split
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick:
    • "The Old Dope Peddler" sings admiringly of the cornerstone of any neighborhood, the heroin dealer. In more recent interviews, he's admitted that in retrospect he finds that particular song "chilling".
    • "Be Prepared" exhorts Boy Scouts to be prepared for all situations...such as smoking dope and pimping out their own sisters.
    • "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" is mostly an almost sweet, happy song about wanting to go back home... but it's after he includes the line "Ol' times there are not forgotten/Whuppin' slaves and selling cotton" that it gets dark.
    • "My Home Town" begins with idyllic reminiscences of his home town and quickly slides into recalling "the guy who took a knife/and monogrammed his wife".
    • Let's take another look at "I Hold Your Hand in Mine".
      I hold your hand in mine, dear
      I press it to my lips.
      I take a healthy bite
      From your dainty fingertips.
    • Intensifies when we learn that the narrator killed his girlfriend and cut her hand off.
  • Censored for Comedy: In "My Home Town", Lehrer leaves out a line in the verse about the Sunday School teacher and the parson with something to the effect of "I'd better leave this line out just to be on the safe side". Lehrer later admitted that he intended to fill in the line at some point, but never found a satisfactory rhyme. Eventually, he realized that the idea that he wanted to say something so unspeakably racy that he had to censor himself was much funnier than anything he could come up with.
  • Crapsack World: "My Home Town", although it could perhaps be "Crapsaccharine" given how fondly the narrator remembers it.
  • Creepy Souvenir: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine". It transpires that her hand is no longer attached to the rest of her body.
  • Dance Sensation: "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz".
  • Death of a Child: In "The Irish Ballad", the Irish maid's murder spree includes immolating her sister, drowning her elder brother, and cutting her younger brother in half.
  • Deep South: Considering that segregation was still in full force, "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" ("I ain't seen one good lynchin' in years!") counts as a pretty brave Protest Song as well.
  • Drugs Are Good: "The Old Dope Peddler", at least superficially. It presents itself as a sentimental tribute to a neighborhood drug dealer who "do(es) well by doing good." The trope is played for laughs and shock value, the latter especially since it was recorded early in The '50s. It was a satire of the 1946 tune "The Old Lamp Lighter".
  • Egomaniac Hunter: Parodied in "The Hunting Song", whose protagonist describes his technique as, "You just stand there looking cute / And when something moves, you shoot!"
  • Enfant Terrible: The little girl in "The Irish Ballad".
    About a maid I'll sing a song
    Who did not have her family long
    Not only did she do them wrong
    She did every one of them in
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • What makes the Censored for Comedy Noodle Incident in "My Home Town" work so well. Given what Tom Lehrer will put in his songs (this one alone includes arson, sale of pornography to minors, prostitution, cannibalism, and multiple murders), the implication of what, exactly, even he considers best left unsaid is hysterical.
    • The protagonist of "The Irish Ballad" murders her entire family, but she'd never commit the sin of lying!
  • Everytown, America: Parodied in "My Home Town".
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The album title tells you just what you're getting here.
  • The Film of the Book: "Lobachevsky" describes a film version of a mathematics textbook...
    With Ingrid Bergman [or Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, or Doris Day, depending on the version] playing the part of Hypotenuse.
  • Fingore: The intro of "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" takes I Kiss Your Hand in an unexpected direction, and it just gets worse from there...
    I hold your hand in mine, dear
    I press it to my lips
    I take a healthy bite from
    Your dainty fingertips
  • Flock of Wolves: On the live album, Lehrer introduces "The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be" by saying:
    "A few years ago I worked for a while at the Los Alamos scientific laboratory in New Mexico. I had a job there as a spy. Now, I guess you know that the staff out there at that time was composed almost exclusively of spies... of one persuasion or another."
  • Football Fight Song: "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" subverts the usual spirit of the fight song while parodying the popular view of Harvard University.
  • Friend to Psychos: In "My Home Town":
    I remember Sam; he was the village idiot
    And though it seems a pity, it was so
    He liked to burn down houses just to watch the glow
    And nothing could be done
    Because he was the mayor's son
  • Grammar Correction Gag: In "Be Prepared", Lehrer admonishes young Boy Scouts, "Don't write naughty words on walls if you can't spell".
  • Gratuitous Panning: The 1966 re-recording was done because Reprise wanted to have the songs in stereo. On that recording, the vocals are on the extreme left and the piano on the extreme right, making it seem like Lehrer either had six feet long arms or had a different pianist play along as he sang.
  • Grow Old with Me: Satirized in "When You Are Old and Gray".
    Since I still appreciate you
    Let's find love while we may
    Because I know I'll hate you
    When you are old and gray
  • Having a Heart: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine". The hand is not attached to its owner.
  • Holding Hands: Gruesomely subverted in "I Hold Your Hand in Mine", where it's revealed that the narrator cut his lover's hand off after murdering her. But he still likes to hold her hand.
  • Human Head on the Wall: "The Hunting Song":
    And there's ten stuffed heads in my trophy room right now,
    Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a pure-bred guernsey cow.
  • Insult Backfire: The Harvard University Band regularly performs his fight-song parody "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" at football games.
  • Knows a Guy Who Knows a Guy: An exaggeratedly long example in "Lobachevsky": "I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, whose friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk with friend in Akmolinsk!" That's not the complete list, by the way. And the return journey somehow manages to squeeze in two more cities that weren't mentioned the first time. It ends with Lehrer's character being able to steal and publish the solution to a problem before the guy who actually solved it can do so.
  • Last-Second Word Swap: In the spoken introduction to "Lobachevsky" on the live album:
    For many years now, Mr. Danny Kaye, who has been my particular idol since childbirth, has been doing a routine about the great Russian director Stanislavsky and the secret of success in the acting profession. And I thought it would be interesting to st— to adapt this idea to the field of mathematics.
  • A Love to Dismember: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine":
    I'm sorry now I killed you, for our love was something fine
    But till they come to get me I shall hold your hand in mine!
  • Luring in Prey: "The Hunting Song" describes a surefire way of doing this:
    People ask me how I do it.
    And I say, "There's nothing to it!
    You just stand there looking cute.
    And when something moves—you shoot!"
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "The Old Dope Peddler" is an old-fashioned sentimental ballad praising the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer.
    • "Be Prepared" is a cheery song about, among other things, how important it is for boy scouts to hide their reefer from the scoutmaster, and make sure they get a cut when pimping out your sister.
    • "My Home Town" is in the same style, and about - among other things - how his old math teacher sells pornography to his students, his high school sweetheart has become a prostitute and the nice guy who ran the drugstore killed his mother-in law and served her ground remains as ice-cream garnish.
    • "When You Are Old and Gray" is a cheery love song about how the singer will abandon his beloved when she becomes too old for him.
    • "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" is a love ballad that mentions that the singer killed the girl in question, and said hand is no longer attached.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Out of twelve songs, eight or nine of them (depending on whether you have the original version or the re-recording) are under two minutes.
  • Minsky Pickup: In the intro to "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie".
  • Motor Mouth: The spoken-word passages of "Lobachevsky" are this.
  • Mummies at the Dinner Table: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine".
  • Murder Ballad:
    • "The Irish Ballad".
      Not only did she do them wrong
      She did ev'ry one of them in
    • "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" is revealed to be one in the final stanza.
      I'm sorry now I killed you
      For our love was something fine
      And till they come to get me
      I shall hold your hand in mine
  • Noodle Incident: In the song "My Home Town," Tom Lehrer always omits a line while announcing something to the effect of, "We're recording tonight, so I'll have to leave this line out." (He subsequently admitted that he never found a satisfactory line, and found the implication that he wanted to say something so unspeakably racy that it had to be censored much funnier.)
  • The Oldest Profession:
    • "My Home Town":
      No fella could ignore
      The little girl next door
      She sure looked sweet in her first evening gown
      Now there's a charge on what she used to give for free
      In my home town
    • "Be Prepared":
      Don't solicit for your sister, that's not nice
      Unless you get a good percentage of her price
  • One-Man Song: "Lobachevsky", about a Real Life Russian mathematician.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: Advice to avert this trope in the last lines of "Be Prepared."
    If you're looking for adventure of a new and different kind,
    And you come across a Girl Scout who is similarly inclined,
    Don't be nervous, don't be flustered, don't be scared!
    Be prepared!
  • Overly-Long Gag: The bridge section in "When You Are Old and Gray" uses so many "-ility" rhymes that he (intentionally) gets worn-out about three-quarters of the way through.
  • Overly Prepared Gag: "The Irish Ballad" spends six verses lovingly describing the Irish maid's murder spree in order to set up the punchline:
    When at last the police called by
    Her little pranks she did not deny
    To do so, she would have had to lie
    And lying, she knew, was a sin.
  • Packaged as Other Medium: The cover of the 1958 British release is modeled on a newspaper's front page.
  • Photo Op with the Dog: From "Be Prepared":
    Be prepared! And be careful not to do
    Your good deeds when there's no one watching you''
  • The Pig-Pen: In "My Home Town":
    The guy that taught us math
    Who never took a bath
    Acquired a certain measure of renown
  • Pyromaniac: From "My Home Town":
    I remember Sam!
    He was the village idiot
    And though it seems a pity, it was so
    He liked to burn down houses just to watch the glow
  • Quirky Town: Parodied in "My Home Town", which starts out as a nostalgic piece about a town of "extra-special just-plain-folks" inhabiting a "place where no-one wears a frown", but goes on to describe such lovable eccentrics as the ice cream seller whose special garnish was made from the ground-up corpse of his mother-in-law, the young man who "burned down houses just to watch the glow", and the kindly parson whose depravity is such that the narrator refuses even to speak of it.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: "The Hunting Song" talks about accidents usual for an opening of the hunting season. With a "recipe":
    People ask me how I do it.
    And I say, "There's nothing to it!
    You just stand there looking cute.
    And when something moves—you shoot!"
  • Re-Cut: The original 1953 release was originally a 10" LP (as was the 1958 British release), with a double EP version issued in 1955. It was "expanded" to a 12" LP in 1959; while 10"-to-12" expansions usually added more songs or combined two 10" albums into one 12" album, this one strangely averts it by simply spacing out the grooves further to fill out the now-larger sides.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine".
  • The Secret of Long Pork Pies: In "My Home Town", the topping on "each banana split" sold at the drugstore is made from the ground-up corpse of the store owner's mother-in-law.
  • Self-Deprecation:
    • The back cover gives the full title as Songs by Tom Lehrer: His Lyrics, His Music, His So-Called Voice, and His Piano.
    • The cover photo for the live version shows Lehrer seated at the piano on stage, looking out over a sea of empty chairs. (Well, not quite empty: there are two people in the audience. They're both asleep.)
  • Self-Made Orphan: The protagonist of "The Irish Ballad" murders her mother and father (along with the rest of her immediate family).
  • Serial Killer: "The Irish Ballad" is about a woman who murders her entire family one by one.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: In "Lobachevsky", the narrator mentions having to write a paper on the subject of "Analytic and Algebraic Topology of Locally Euclidean Metrization of Infinitely Differentiable Riemannian Manifold". As a bonus, what with Lehrer knowing his subject when it comes to mathematics, this is not just a bunch of big words strung together but an actual topic that someone in Lobachevsky's field might work on.
  • Silver Spoon Troublemaker: Sam in "My Home Town", whose antics extend to wanton property destruction but have to be tolerated because he's the mayor's son.
  • Skewed Priorities: The Villain Protagonist of "Irish Ballad" thinks that lying is more of an issue than killing her entire family. When the police come by to investigate the murders, she admits to all of her killings so as not to lie.
  • The Something Song: "The Hunting Song".
  • Southern Gentleman: One of the targets in "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie".
    I wanna talk with southern gentlemen
    And put my white sheet on again,
    I ain't seen one good lynchin' in years!
  • Stealing the Credit: The secret to success, according to "Lobachevsky".
    Let no one else's work evade your eyes!
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
    So don't shade your eyes,
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!

    Only be sure always to call it, please, "research."
  • Take Our Word for It: "My Home Town"
    That fellow was no fool
    Who taught our Sunday school
    And neither was our kindly Parson Brown
    [speaking] Shall I? No, I think I'd better not.
    [singing] In my home town
  • Trigger-Happy: The protagonist of "The Hunting Song" describes his method as "when something moves, you shoot", which goes a long way toward explaining the trophies he brings home.
  • Trrrilling Rrrs: In "The Irish Ballad", Lehrer sometimes does this during the "rickety-tickety-tin" refrain.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: Why the murderous protagonist of "The Irish Ballad" confesses.
    And when at last the police came by,
    Her little pranks she did not deny.
    To do so she would have had to lie,
    And lying, she knew, was a sin.

Alternative Title(s): Tom Lehrer Revisited