9. Satire: Tom Lehrer

performing at UCLA's Royce Hall for Greek Week

performing at UCLA’s Royce Hall for Greek Week (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tom Lehrer was a Harvard University lecturer in Mathematics, turned singer/satirist/songwriter, who came to prominence with the growth of the civil rights and nuclear disarmament movements in the US in the 1960s. I am not aware of any attempts to censor, ban or prosecute him, although I’m sure many of his songs could have caused offence. It just goes to show what you can get away with by using humour and a good tune. I’ve included him for his comments on religion (“The Vatican Rag”), censorship (“Smut”), and racism/political correctness (“National Brotherhood Week”).

Cover of "That Was the Year That Was"

Cover of That Was the Year That Was

The Vatican Rag

If you listen to recordings of Lenny Bruce’s live performances, it is clear that the greatest discomfort in the audience is caused not by the words he was prosecuted for (such as “cocksuckers” or “motherfuckers”), but by his irreverence towards religion.

Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” is an irreverent dig at things Catholic. My sister-in-law, who is a devout Catholic, thinks it is hilarious. It is good to be able to laugh at yourself. Just be careful, though – we’re not allowed to make fun of the Muslims.

See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFIkeXQI8nI&feature=endscreen&NR=1

“First you get down on your knees, Fiddle with your rosaries, Bow your head with great respect, And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want, if You have cleared them with the pontiff. Everybody say his own Kyrie eleison, Doin’ the Vatican Rag.

Get in line in that processional, Step into that small confessional, There, the guy who’s got religion’ll Tell you if your sin’s original. If it is, try playin’ it safer, Drink the wine and chew the wafer, Two, four, six, eight, Time to transubstantiate!

So get down upon your knees, Fiddle with your rosaries, Bow your head with great respect, And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Make a cross on your abdomen, When in Rome do like a Roman, Ave maria, Gee it’s good to see ya, Gettin’ ecstatic an’ Sorta dramatic an’ Doin’ the Vatican Rag!”


As Tom Lehrer says: “I do have a cause though. It is obscenity. I’m for it. Unfortunately the civil liberties types who are fighting this issue have to fight it owing to the nature of the laws as a matter of freedom of speech and stifling of free expression and so on but we no what’s really involved: dirty books are fun. That’s all there is to it. But you can’t get up in a court and say that I suppose. It’s simply a matter of freedom of pleasure, a right which is not guaranteed by the constitution unfortunately. Anyway, since people seem to be marching for their causes these days I have here a march for mine.  It’s called…”

“Smut! Give me smut and nothing but! A dirty novel I can’t shut, If it’s uncut, And unsubt- le.

I’ve never quibbled If it was ribald, I would devour where others merely nibbled. As the judge remarked the day that he Acquitted my aunt Hortense, “to be smut It must be ut- Terly without redeeming social importance.”

Por- Nographic pictures I adore. Indecent magazines galore, I like them more If they’re hard core.

(bring on the obscene movies, murals, postcards, neckties, Samplers, stained-glass windows, tattoos, anything! More, more, I’m still not satisfied!)

Stories of tortures Used by debauchers, Lurid, licentious, and vile, Make me smile. Novels that pander To my taste for candor Give me a pleasure sublime. (let’s face it, I love slime.)

All books can be indecent books Though recent books are bolder, For filth (I’m glad to say) is in the mind of the beholder. When correctly viewed, everything is lewd. (I could tell you things about Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz, there’s a dirty old man!)

I thrill To any book like Fanny Hill, And I suppose I always will, If it is swill And really fil Thy.

Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately? I’ve got a hobby: rereading Lady Chatterley. But now they’re trying to take it all Away from us unless We take a stand, and hand in hand We fight for freedom of the press. In other words,

Smut! (I love it) Ah, the adventures of a slut. Oh, I’m a market they can’t glut, I don’t know what Compares with smut.

Hip hip hooray! Let’s hear it for the Supreme Court! Don’t let them take it away!”

See:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pva35TFiBfI&feature=BFa&list=AVGxdCwVVULXfr5jfK5zv2j98ZixaSpwRr&lf=list_related

The thing that strikes me about this 1960s song is the reference to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence (see above). Although it was banned in its day, the book seems by today’s standards remarkably tame.

National Brotherhood Week

Tom Lehrer was a savage mocker of 1960s style Political Correctness.

See:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAOwYDlEQXo&feature=related

“One week of every year is designated National Brotherhood Week. This is just one of many such weeks honoring various worthy causes. One of my favorites is national make-fun-of-the-handicapped week, which Frank Fontaine and Jerry Lewis are in charge of as you know. During National Brotherhood Week various special events are arranged to drive home the message of Brotherhood. This year, for example, on the first day of the week Malcolm X was killed which gives you an idea of how effective the whole thing is. I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another and I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that. Here’s a song about National Brotherhood Week…”

“Oh, the white folks hate the black folks, And the black folks hate the white folks. To hate all but the right folks is an old established rule.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week, Lena Horne and Sheriff Clarke are dancing cheek to cheek. It’s fun to eulogize The people you despise, As long as you don’t let ’em in your school.

Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks, And the rich folks hate the poor folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks, It’s American as apple pie.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week, New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans ’cause it’s very chic. Step up and shake the hand Of someone you can’t stand. You can’t tolerate him if you try.

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, And the Catholics hate the Protestants, And the Hindus hate the Moslems, And everybody hates the Jews.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week, It’s national everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood week. Be nice to people who Are inferior to you. It’s only for a week, so have no fear. Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!”

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