“Christmas time is here, by golly / Disapproval would be foolish / Deck the halls with hunks of holly / Fill the cup and don’t say ‘when’.” So sings musical satirist Tom Lehrer on his 1959 hit album A Wasted Evening with Tom Lehrer — which was recorded in March of that year, not that that stopped him from taking a stab at the offseason during the holidays. “Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens / Mix the punch, pull out the Dickens / Even if the prospect is sick / Brother, here we go again.” If it seems to you that he takes a dim view of Christmas, you should hear how he sings about everything else.
Now, easier than ever, you can hear Lehrer sing about everything else, simply by downloading his music from his website. “All copyrights to lyrics or music written or composed by me have been relinquished and therefore such songs are now in the public domain,” he writes. “All my songs that have never been copyrighted, after being available for free for so long, are now also in the public domain.” In short, he adds, “I no longer retain any rights to any of my songs.” We posted about the release of the songs themselves in Public Domain a couple of years ago, but last month Lehrer made the songs available online – for a limited time.
Not just is A Wasted Evening with Tom Lehrer free to stream or download on TomLehrerSongs.com – complete with tracks not available even on Spotify – as is its follow-up Revisited, That was the year (featuring performances of the songs he wrote for the American version of That was the week) and the three-plate collection The Remains of Tom Lehrer. Together, these albums contain all the music Lehrer recorded before he left the piano and became a professor, first of political science and later of mathematics (although he taught musical theater as well.)
Given his secular Jewish origins and his obvious disdain for the Mammonist holiday (at least “as we celebrate it in the US”), Lehrer would surely get a chuckle from us taking this free release of all his music as a Christmas present. And yet, like all the best Christmas gifts, it has both a surface value and a deeper one. Despite their topical references in the late 50s and early 60s to things like “new math” and Vatican II, his songs can still make us laugh today. But they can also show younger generations a satirical sensibility they’ve never known: culturally savvy, dry with well-placed plunges into the lowbrow, transgressive without cheap crudeness, all supported by musical aplomb. Perhaps Lehrer decided to make his music free because now, in his tenth decade, he can be sure that no one will surpass him. Find his music here.
Tom Lehrer publishes All of Catchy and Savage Musical Satire Into the Public Domain
Hear Tom Lehrer sing the names of 102 chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan
Tom Lehrer’s mathematically and scientifically inclined singing and songwriting, animated
Celebrate Harry Potter’s birthday with song. Daniel Radcliffe sings Tom Lehrer’s tune “The Elements”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcaststs on cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city at the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.