The old melodies from the '50s come back to us now almost with the flavor of another century -- who can forget "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz," "The Irish Ballad," "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," "The Old Dope Peddler" -- the beloved sounds of the Eisenhower years, to which the collective soul of America has lately turned with yearning. It was, perhaps, inevitable that Tom Lehrer would become a packaged product in the burgeoning nostalgia industry; he has that magic blend of period flavor and timeless relevance that is the hallmark of the truly nostalgic -- like an old single of "Teen Angel," an original Mickey Mouse watch, an Adlai Stevenson poster.
Like so many subjects of nostalgia, Lehrer was a victim of history. In the 1950s and early '60s, beginning when he was a graduate student and instructor in math at Harvard, Lehrer built an enthusiastic cult following, chiefly on campuses, with his parodies of folk songs and romantic ballads. His technique was simple but effective: Take a familiar kind of melody (Irish ballad, Viennese waltz, calypso, patriotic song or Tin Pan Alley confection about romance in Old Mexico) and set it to lyrics that clash with the feeling of the music -- lyrics about sex and violence and narcotics and shocking things like that. Then, along came the rock revolution, and almost everyone was singing about sex and violence and narcotics, with music that was almost impossible to parody (at least for someone of Lehrer's background -- much later, the Rutles would manage it, briefly, in one specialized area).
In the late '60s, after recording three albums and giving concerts all over the world, Lehrer retired as a performer -- fortunately, he also had economically useful skills as a math teacher. He came out of retirement for a while as a songwriter, composing 10 songs in the early '70s for "The Electric Company," a children's show on public TV. But that raised the specter of another menace: Perhaps a new generation would grow up thinking of Lehrer not as the composer of "Pollution" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," but of songs like "Silent E": "Who can turn a can into a cane?/ Who can turn a pan into a pane?" There are occasional flashes of the old Lehrer, even in this material ("He took a twin and turned him into twine"), but surely the memory of Tom Lehrer deserves better.
Fortunately, as Lehrer says in a brief foreword to this book, "An intrepid but not entirely rational young British producer named Cameron Mackintosh took it into his head that what had previously been done to every songwriter from Jacques Brel to Stephen Sondheim might be done to me, namely, a stage production embalming my old songs." The resulting musical, entitled "Tomfoolery," opened in London in 1980 and will reach Washington in a few weeks.
Members of the Lehrer generation (many of whom, by now, can afford tickets to a musical) will also find all the old favorites in the book, from "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" to "The Vatican Rag," plus some material that may be unfamiliar: two songs from "The Electric Company" and one song that Lehrer never recorded because, in those innocent days, the lyrics were considered naughty ("I got it from Agnes,/ She got it from Jim./ We all agree it must have been/ Louise who gave it to him./ Now she got it from Harry,/ Who got it from Marie,/ And everybody knows that Marie/ Got it from me.") In our post-Zappa era, somehow that seems less shocking than when it was composed about 1953.
There is still probably a frisson in some of his other works -- for example, the punch line of "I Hold Your Hand in Mine": "My joy would be complete, dear,/ If you were only here,/ But still I keep your hand/ As a precious souvenir," or in the happy ending of his "Hunting Song": "I went and shot the maximum the game laws would allow,/ Two game wardens, seven hunters and a cow." But is there anything funny, any more, about those long-ago outdoor nuclear tests in our Western states?
The title of this collection is literally correct. More of Ronald Searle's sardonic drawings would have been welcome, and Lehrer himself has noted (in impeccable Harvardese) the obsolescence of some of his work: "I regarded them as fugacious ephemera which by now should have been of artifactual interest only to scholars (although in what field I can't imagine)."
But for those who remember them when they were shiny and new, there is still a special charm in at least 80 percent of these songs. Even while you are wishing it would become obsolete, you can't help enjoying the catchy calypso flavor of "Pollution": "See the halibuts and the sturgeons/ Being wiped out by detergeons./ Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly,/ But they don't last long if they try." And there is a splendid sense of culture shock in his Gringo reaction to a bullfight: "I hadn't had so much fun since the day/ My brother's dog Rover/ Got run over."
Besides making it easier to butcher Lehrer's songs in your own way, the publication of the words and music has at least one other small benefit: It allows you to read his rather imaginative markings on tempo and performance style. "I Got It From Agnes," for example, should be sung "infectiously," the Irish ballad "authentically," "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz" "Mit Schlag" (ugh!), and the Boy Scout song, "Be Prepared," "Trustworthily, loyally, helpfully, friendlily, etc." When sung with scrupulous care for such helpful directions, these choice bits of musica antiqua still offer much enjoyment.