Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tom Lehrer -- The Tom Lehrer Collection

The Tom Lehrer Collection
Shout! Factory

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Tom Lehrer, a highly respected mathematician, occasionally wrote, recorded and performed brilliant satirical songs that lampooned the social and political mores of the Cold War era. His was a limited output: 37 songs spread out over a few LPs, several of which were recorded live in concert. Later on, there were a few more songs written in the early-1970s for The Electric Company, an educational TV show for kids and some rare compositions and performances in the 1990s.

The Tom Lehrer Collection is a CD/DVD combination that provides an excellent overview of Lehrer’s catalogue.

The CD includes 26 songs most of which are drawn from that repertoire of 37 songs written and recorded in the ‘50s and ‘60s. You’d think that topical songs from 40 or 50 years ago would seem dated today, but the relevance of some of them has only deepened over time. Many of the environmental problems that Lehrer was singing about in “Pollution” in 1965 are so much worse now than they were back then and the nuclear threat documented in songs like “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” is still being addressed in international non-proliferation conferences. The racial, ethnic and religious bigotry that Lehrer lampooned in “National Brotherhood Week,” has a direct line of descent to some of the veiled bigotry that still plays out in American tea parties and reasonable accommodation debates in Canada.

If I had to pick my favourite track, I suppose I’d go with “(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” a very funny send-up of the kind of secular holiday songs written by Jewish songwriters like Irving Berlin for Christian holidays like Christmas. Recorded in 1999, it’s one of those rare, later period Lehrer songs.

Lehrer himself chose the songs for this collection and wrote the liner notes. As an old folkie, my one quibble with his song selection is that he left out “The Folk Song Army,” his hilarious send-up of the early-60s folk boomers. But, he did include “The Irish Ballad,” his equally-hilarious parody of a traditional Irish ballad with an introduction that brilliantly sizes up folkier-than-thou purists.

The CD is a great set for anyone looking for an excellent primer on Lehrer and his songs. The DVD is a great bonus for anyone interested in the songs and makes The Tom Lehrer Collection essential even to Lehrer completists who already have all the original Lehrer albums (they’re all in print on CD) or The Remains of Tom Lehrer boxed set that came out a decade ago.

The DVD includes a complete 12-song concert recorded for Norwegian television in 1967, several rare performances from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and four animated videos of the songs that Lehrer wrote for The Electric Company.

The song intros on the DVD -- and on many of the live tracks on the CD -- also show Lehrer to be a much wittier comedian than most of today's stand-ups.

In the small world department, two of the DVD performances, “The Derivative” and “That’s Mathematics,” were taken from a 1997 event at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute event honouring the 80th birthday of Irving Kaplansky, who had been Lehrer’s math professor at Harvard in 1943 and ’44. Kaplansky, who was an amateur musician and songwriter himself, was the father of singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, one of the finest of today’s contemporary folk artists.

--Mike Regenstreif

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