Tom Lehrer’s Bequest

No, don’t worry – he’s still alive and well.

Over at Daily Kos [kos] we are informed that Lehrer has decided, pre-mortem, to drop his licensing on his various songs, recordings, etc.

I’ve also got to steal this tidbit from one of the commenters on the post at Kos:

At that time – 1953 – there were only two recording studios listed in the Boston Yellow Pages.  I went to both of them. One was rude and condescending, and the other was friendly and encouraging, even though, of course, they had no idea what I was planning to record.  So I went with the second one. For $15, I got an hour of studio time, including the use of one microphone and their piano.  I would record a song and, if I liked the playback, we went on to the next one. If not, we’d just record it again over the first take. No splicing, no editing. By the end of the hour, I had the 12 songs in order, totaling 22 minutes. That does seem short, but most comedy songs are too long.  

A friend drew the cover – cheap to print be because it involved only red and black with no overlap–and I wrote the liner notes for the jacket. A local printer assembled the jackets, and RCA’s custom-department pressed the records. I figured that with sales to my friends and relatives and local I audiences I could sell 400 copies and break even, so that’s what I ordered. I then ordered more, investing the profits, and eventually began making a net profit. Initially, I sold them around Harvard and in Cambridge record stores. Some newspapers and magazines, such as the “San Francisco Chronicle” and “The Saturday Review,” ran reviews and even gave the address where copies could be ordered. At first, they were mailed from my home – my address was printed on the early jackets – but eventually I got a post office box address. I wanted to find some stores in New York that would carry them. So I went to Liberty Music Shop, which specialized in records by people like Beatrice Lillie and Alec Templeton. They promised to put a note in every mail order from the New York City area saying that additional copies could be purchased at the Liberty Music Shop. And, sure enough, they started placing larger and larger orders. When I went back a few months later, there was a stack of my records on the counter. Then distributors got interested. I had an office in Boston by that time and a few people to handle the orders. There was never any advertising, except when an individual store took out an ad on their own. No personal appearances or record signings and almost no airplay.  I like to say that is spread like herpes, not Ebola. 

My dad got a copy of the first record from Richard Hofstadter (That Richard Hofstadter) who was a colleague and a neighbor one floor down on the 10th floor of our apartment building on Riverside Dr. I didn’t understand a lot of it until years later, but we used to sing, “So long mom, I’m off to drop a bomb” when we loaded into the car to go somewhere.

Years later I mentioned Lehrer to a co-worker who had worked at NSA, who said, “you realize he’s one of ours?” I knew he’s a mathematician but never realized he’s a cryptographer.


  1. kurt1 says

    Got into Tom Lehrer when I started studying Chemistry and someone linked to his Elements song. Absolute genius, an incredible talented, funny and intelligent person. “Alma” pops into my head regularly, because the partner of a friend in Vienna is named Alma.

  2. quotetheunquote says

    Aiiieeeee! “Tom Lehrer’s Bequest”, don’t scare us like that! Already too many good people down this year (never mind that, this month).
    I loved the story about making that first record, I had no idea it was so low-tech.

    I like to say that is spread like herpes, not Ebola.

    I can hear him, singing under his breath, – “I got it from Agnes, she got it from Jim/We all agree it must have been Louise who gave it to him…”

  3. jenorafeuer says

    Thanks, now I have that one going through my head, too.

    The history of his singing career is interesting. It seems pretty obvious that he started doing this on a lark back in University, never expected it would take off, and eventually just decided that the whole touring and being popular part wasn’t fun anymore. He probably would have fit in quite well with a number of SF ‘filk’ circles. (Though probably not the ‘ose’ ones, because he preferred a certain cynical humour. They’re called ‘ose’ because listening to them makes you more-ose.)

    I’ve always loved the fact that Lehrer also did several songs for ‘The Electric Company’, which was basically Sesame Street for middle schoolers. I can still rattle off most of ‘Silent e’ from memory. “Who can turn a dam (alakazam) into a dame… But my friend Sam, stayed just the same.”

    I hadn’t known Lehrer got into cryptography, but can’t say I’m entirely surprised.

  4. xohjoh2n says

    It was many years before Lehrer publicly revealed that he had been assigned to the NSA, since the mere fact of its existence was classified at the time; this left him in the interesting position of implicitly using nuclear weapons work as a cover story for something more sensitive.


  5. cafebabe says

    Lehrer toured Down Under(TM) in the 50s IIRC, doing first Australia, then New Zealand. At his NZ concert he told the audience that at his concert in Melbourne he was warned that if he sang his Boy Scouts song he would be arrested. He quipped that they feared that if he were to sing the song the whole scouting movement in Australia would collapse. He said “I sang it anyway, but scouting didn’t collapse; a pity.”
    So far as I recollect the key lyrics were:
    When you’re walking by the river with a certain thought in mind/
    and you chance upon a girl scout who is similarly inclined/
    don’t be flustered, don’t frightened, don’t be scared/

  6. quotetheunquote says

    @cafebabe #5

    Good story, never heard that before!

    I’m thinking that the Powers that Be of the day may have been more disturbed by this section:

    …keep those reefers hidden where you’re sure that they will not be found/And be careful not to smoke them when the scoutmaster’s around/ For he only will insist that they be shared!/Be prepared!

  7. Matthias Neeracher says

    Or maybe it was:
    > Don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice // Unless you get a good percentage of her price.

  8. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    I have fond memories of the Tom Lehrer singalongs at Mensa gatherings. Someone always brings the songbook, and hardly anyone ever needs it.

  9. jrkrideau says

    I think my personal favourite is Lobachevsky with the great refrain

    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’

  10. says

    My favorite was always “so long mom, I’m off to drop a bomb” which synergized so well with Doctor Strangelove which, if I recall correctly, I watched the same year.

    That brings a point about Lehrer, which I believe he made, once. Some of this work is tied to the time when it was written, and barely makes sense, anymore, to someone who is not familiar with the memes of a specific time (e.g.: his song about the Multi-Lateral Force, MLF) Others are timeless, like The Masochism Tango which is some really fine tune-writing and I always wanted to overdub it atop the Roxanne scene in Moulin Rouge

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