Satirist Tom Lehrer has put his songs into the public domain

If you are a baby boomer, there’s a very good chance he was one of your idols in high school or college, and you probably remember him vividly, although he really hasn’t performed in about 50 years, with some brief exceptions for charitable causes.

In my corridor of the freshman dorms, perhaps half of the guys had at least ten of Lehrer’s songs memorized. Since we all came from different parts of the world, our slowly discovered mutual love for Lehrer’s satire was part of our bonding experience, perhaps the largest part. Jocks and nerds, intellectuals and frat boys found that they had Lehrer in common, and that led to some guys forming otherwise unlikely lifetime friendships.

“Lehrer, 92, announced Tuesday via his website that he’s effectively putting everything he ever wrote into the public domain. That means his lyrics and sheet music are available for anyone to use or perform, without having to pay royalties or deal with lawyers.”

8 thoughts on “Satirist Tom Lehrer has put his songs into the public domain

  1. The first three Mothers of Invention albums served the same purpose in my dorm freshman and sophomore years.

    1. I was a little slow on that one. Some of my students introduced me to Zappa after college, when I was a teacher. “Hey, Mr. W. I think you would like this.” But I know what you mean about the bonding value of a shared admiration for somebody basically unknown and/or rejected to the mainstream. Two of those students still stay in touch with me, some 50 years thereafter.

      In more recent years, I have bonded with Russians over Visotsky, whom you might call the Russian Zappa. (Or at least as close as one could come to Zappa-like iconoclasm in Soviet times.)

  2. “Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground, I thought of him as a friend. Whenever I feel like escaping from the world of the Presidency, I think of him.”
    — Václav Havel
    About 10 years back when I was taking Greek Comedies at Catholic and we were reading Aristophanes’ Frogs, the topic of really savage satirists came up. Zappa quickly entered the conversation. After class I ended up talking FZ with two girls. Next meeting I lent them some early Mothers and the Fillmore East CDs (I caught that band with the ex-Turtles and Aynsley Dunbar while I was stationed at the Presidio in SF). They were awe and struck.

    1. I have a friend who is into Zappa. Almost too into Zappa – he has every bootleg, every side-project. I once made a throwaway joke about him having Frank’s answering-machine message. He came right back with “I have two, wanna hear them?”
      Still, 27 years gone and his legacy is only growing.

  3. “Everybody say his own
    Kyrie Eleison”
    In my recovering-Catholic crowd, this slew.
    Classy move too, putting his stuff out there so he can see us enjoy it. Just what we need now to cling to; yea, even unto days of William Barr.

    1. “2-4-6-8 … time to transubstantiate”

      Inspired by Lehrer’s take on Catholicism, two of my friends and I had many more obscure takes on obscure Catholicana.

      I can’t remember all of the lines, but here are some of my favorite “rhymes” from “Jesus, I Heard You’re Getting Married” (to the tune of “Worst That Could Happen”)

      Jesus, you know they’ll never use ya,
      cuz you’ve got homoousia
      with the father you are one


      And Mary , I can’t really blame you for wanting some more than a host.

      Baby its the best thing for you, but it’s the worst that could happen – to the Holy Ghost.


      I put “rhymes” inside quote marks above because I truly have no idea how to pronounce “homoousia” or “homoiousia.” But I know it’s some deep-ass doctrinal controversy.

  4. I was born in 1968, so I am definitely not a baby boomer. But I discovered Tom Lehrer in the early 90’s working in a pizza place on Sunday nights where I listened to the Dr. Demento radio show. Weird Al has written some very funny parodies, but Lehrer wrote incredibly intelligent satires that were also extremely funny. Given how intelligent his songs are, it isn’t surprising he was a Harvard graduate that taught Math at MIT. It’s not like he was a rock star or anything. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan on the other hand is a self taught ballistic missile defense consultant. That is not a second career you would expect for a rock star.

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