July 18th, 2013

Me 2012

An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer

My parents didn't listen to music very much when I was a kid. They had perhaps a few dozen vinyl records, and I don't even know what most of them were. But there are two I listened to pretty often as a teen: the soundtrack for "Camelot", the musical, and "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer".

Tom Lehrer did musical comedy, parodying popular styles but usually with original music. The exception would be "The Elements", where he sings the periodic table of elements to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Modern Major General". His career as a performer was from late 50s to 1970 or so. My very brief research says he retired from music because he'd lost interest in performing, not from any lack of success or demand. He continued to work as a math professor.

While I was cleaning a few weeks ago, I started ripping the small stack of CDs that had been gathering dust for, in some cases, years while waiting for me to get them onto my iPod. One of the jewel cases was for "That Was the Year that Was", by Tom Lehrer. It was unique in the stack in that I don't remember getting it. I don't know where it came from. My best guess is that I picked it up used at a con. Inside, however, was not "That Was the Year that Was", but "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer".

This album is not topical music (the later TWtYtW is much more political) and holds up well over the 5+ decades since he released it. I think when it was re-released in the 90's it went platinum. I still enjoy it, although the cynicism resonates with me less now, amusingly. But I don't know how many of you will have heard of him. "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" has a certain notoriety, and "The Elements" retains its geek cred.

But there is one little thing that caught my attention while I was listening to it again. It's a live album and in the prelude to "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier", Lehrer says that his platoon sergeant, referring to the absence of an official Army song, "suggested we work on this in our copious free time".

And I thought: "Did Lehrer coin that? I'm sure this is the first place I heard that phrase, 'copious free time'." I checked with Google and, yes, looks like Lehrer did coin it. So if you've ever used that line and wondered who came up with it first, now you know.