Amusing songs from grimmer realities

This evening, my friend Linda and I had a discussion about people being rather mean in workplaces where one might expect everyone to be altruistic (museums, in this case).
I don’t remember ever having such illusions but would agree that it is a regretful situation.
Then she sent me links to Tom Lehrer songs on YouTube to cheer us up:

I also caught a glimpse of another old favourite:

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed his songs. Watching the video of him smiling and hearing the audience laugh as he sang of the total destruction of the human race was thought-provoking.

His audience would have been born in, served in, or experienced at a distance, World War 2. Some of his audience may have served in the trenches in World War 1. Lehrer’s performance in this recording was in 1967.

This was 5 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was a real fear that there would be a nuclear World War 3 that would kill most of the human race. So when Tom Lehrer sang that they would “all fry together,” “all char together” etc, the audience are finding it funny even though – or because – they knew that it was a possibility.

For those who were too young to remember or born after the end of the Cold War, it must be difficult to imagine what it was like to live through that period. As children, we were aware of the utter futility of Government advice on what to do in case of nuclear war.

Information poster about the hydrogen bomb produced in 1960s.

Information poster about the hydrogen bomb produced in 1960s.

When I was about 11, we were taught about the ‘DEW line.’ It was designed to give early warning of attacks on the United States. Many of my schoolfriends lived on the nearest DEW line station. We knew that if world leaders started pushing the red buttons, we would know nothing about it because there would be a nuclear bomb or two heading straight at us.

Humour can be a defence mechanism. Whilst it would not have helped to defend people against nuclear bombs, it undoubtedly helped them to cope. Laughter can help to release physical tension, to release endorphins; ultimately to give people hope.

Even democratic governments avoided telling their citizens too much in those days. Strangely enough, it seems that many guessed correctly as to the seriousness of the situation at the time.

Tom Lehrer’s songs that tackle the subject of World War 3 do not flinch from the grim reality. What is remarkable about his performance in these videos is that he is getting people to laugh at truly grim situations.

Think about the lyrics. The rhymes are clever: witty enough to make us smile. The words conjure up nightmare images. The tension between those, and between the safe environment of the performance and the unsafe world beyond that room make this humour very edgy.

Lehrer does not directly attack or mock any individuals. His is a warm performance with underlying brittleness; a statement of solidarity with the audience.

We could do with more grown up humour of this nature today.


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