Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Happy 80th Birthday to Tom Lehrer!

While working on my post about the Ulysses spacecraft the other night, I was watching an episode of the Miniseries From The Earth To the Moon entitled "Spider" for inspiration. It's about the development of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), the vehicle that actually landed two astronauts on the moon while the Command module orbited above them. There was a depiction of NASA administrator Werner Von Braun by a character actor named Norbert Weisser. Ironically, my best friend Jim had sent me a clip of Tom Lehrer doing a song he wrote and performed about Werner Von Braun, and the next day sent me a reminder that it was Lehrer's 80th birthday.

First, who was Werner Von Braun? He was a German rocket scientist who developed the V-2 rocket for the Nazis. The Nazis rained thousands of these rockets, which were more than a decade ahead of their time, upon London and other allied cities. This didn't stop the United States, in a cold war and arms race with the Soviets, from grabbing Von Braun and putting him in charge of our rocket program after the war.

Enter Tom Lehrer. As an undergrad at Harvard, he began composing topical little ditties to perform at parties. He began working simaltaneously as a mathematician, as he'd trained for at Harvard, and touring, performing his songs, which were usually set to other tunes. I first heard him years ago as a kid when Dr. Demento played his "Masochism Tango."

Lehrer's song about Werner Von Braun was pithy and hilarious. In the song, Von Braun states:

"'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun."

Here's a Youtube vid of Lehrer performing it.

A few months ago, I was delighted to hear a little girl in the restaurant singing Lehrer's "Element Song," which is set to the Gilbert and Sullivan tune "Major-General Song" from "Pirates of Penzance." It's simply a run-down of all the elements known in the early 1960's (at the end, he covers himself; the final lyric is "and many, many others/That have yet to be discovered..."). Here's a vid for that one:

Someone also posted one other of my favorites, "National Brotherhood Week."

At least two of Lehrer's albums, "That Was the Year That Was," and "An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer" are on cd now.


lulu said...

Thanks! These remind me of my childhood.

SkylersDad said...

Wonderful memories JY! I liked "We will all go together when we go" and "Poisoning pigeons in the park"!

vikkitikkitavi said...

Aw, you're a Tom Lehrer fan. The geekitude just never ends with you, does it?

Distributorcap said...

lehrer -- another forgotten name
i loved lehrer as a kid because he was funny and because my father listened to him all the time

i bet he still has the albums

Dr. Zaius said...

I love Tom Lehrer! I made a compilation of some his videos as well.

Alasdair said...

I totally forgot how to mark stuff for links, so you'll have to suffer through pasting this into a URL box:

I think my father might have taught himself to sing this one. :)