Valentine: 4th July, Al Capone, and more Tom Lehrer
Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-02-14
A few words on an Australian perspective of Valentine’s Day, and the problem with special days for modified behaviour that are desirable the year around, as so well described by Tom Lehrer (video links below, as well as to lots of other versions of Lehrer’s songs on YouTube)
The Feast of St Valentine became well-known in 19th century United States, and promoted by greeting card manufacturers Any association with love on that day before the middle ages was with the Roman (and earlier Greek) Lupercalia (from lupus=wolf), which was a fertility festival where lots of young males run around naked, with perhaps the best modern equivalent of such practices being the Sydney Mardi Gras.
Australians should take as much notice of this as we do the 4th of July, where awareness of the day was extremely limited only a couple of decades ago, until again, greeting card manufacturers pushed the idea for profit: hardly romantic.
Indeed, when I was a kid, if you were doing a word association test, and given "St Valentine’s Day", you would have blurted out "massacre or "Al Capone", and then made tommy-gun noises.
Tom Lehrer’s satirical take on the Love Song is "She’s My Girl" (lipsynched by a modern). Unfortunately, this isn’t Lehrer’s best tune. His best "love song" is Clementine as reworked by Cole Porter, Mozart, etc, and of course, G&S.
The more general issue with these days like St Vs, even ones that have a tradition, is the tendency to only modify behaviour to above minimal efforts for a single day, and then lapse the rest of the time.
This phenomenon was brilliantly captured by Tom Lehrer in his song "National Brotherhood Week":
But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood week,
it’s National Smile At One-Another-Hood Week.
Be nice to people who
are inferior to you,
it’s only for a week but have no fear:
be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.
There is a YouTube National Brotherhood Week video of Tom singing it, although because some of the video is lost, the first few seconds of the song is a black screen.
Half the reason I’m posting this is actually nothing to do with Valentine, but to use the phenomenon of hypocritical one-day breaks to introduce a new generation to the brilliance of Tom Lehrer.
So… after running around the streets naked then putting your other-half up against a wall and blasting them with a machine gun, enjoy at least a few of the the many other videos of Tom Lehrer songs, with a starter list below (favorites for each bolded/larger font if there is more than one version listed per song):
- Another take on a one-day be-nice bit, "A Christmas Carol":
- Sung by Tom (but with only the lyrics displayed on YouTube because video has been lost)
- Sung by young lady with something vaguely like a ukelele
- "The Elements" which has deserved its own wikipedia page:
- Pencil animation and photo montage – watch carefully (e.g. Krypton displays the Superman symbol)
- Playmobil version
- Periodic table without labels, originally white, but filling in with yellow as the song progresses, with red squares indicating the unknowns
- Periodic table without labels, gradually highlighted, but without indication of the unknowns
- A cute four year old makes a fair attempt (and does a better job than most adults as far as how many elements he can name in 2 minutes! Even if he’s reading things like "Einsteinium" and "Ytterbium" from a cheat sheet!)
- Lipsynched by what looks like a teacher/tutor WITH preamble
- Sonic the Hedgehog
- Dutch version in TV sketch
- "Oedipus Rex"
- "New Math", a song on teaching subtraction, doing "342 – 173"
- Lipsynched by what looks to be a teacher/tutor WITH PREAMBLE AND OCTAL VERSE and good "powerpoint", the same guy doing Lehrer’s "That’s mathematics" and a non-Lehrer rap version of a stats tute. Actually, browse through all of RonfarZ3’s stuff, looking for his lipsynchs.
- Animated blackboard (without Preamble and Octal verse – base 8 is just like base 10 if you’re missing two fingers!)
- "Lobachevsky" a.k.a "Plagiarize":
- "Vatican Rag" about the modernization of the Vatican 2 council:
- "Decimal" explaining decimal currency on the David Frost show to pounds-shillings-pence pommies as guinea… I mean $1.05-pigs (and yes, salesman spoke in guineas here in Oz until 1966 because 99 guineas sounded cheaper than 104 or 105 pounds)
Here are a few of Lehrer’s professions in the 1950s and 1960s:
- Lecturer in quantitative sociology in the politics department of MIT, and Harvard
- Songwriter for the weekly satirical show (think Glasshouse) TW3
- Touring cult artist
- Researcher at Los Alamos and National Security Agency (dunno how his peacenik and environmental songs went down there!)
Enjoy, and feel free to comment about your favorite Lehrer song (although it’s hard to pick one).