|Day 153: Tom Lehrer (Be Prepared)
June 11, 2022
I must say, it is time I return to the box, the one mentioned on Day 37 of this series.
For more background: About the age of 14, I moved from a tiny bedroom in the basement of my parents' house to what had been my father's study (also in the basement). It was at least four times the size of my old bedroom, as far away from my parents' or sisters' bedrooms as anyone could ever hope, and had two entrances/exits, one to the downstairs family room, and one to a storage area that housed my father's HO train layout. Underneath the layout was the box where I could leaf through my parents' old records. None of them were cool in any way that a teenage boy of the late 1970s would care for: some Doris Day, lots of big band, and Frank Sinatra. However, tucked in the box, almost hidden, was an EP, Songs By Tom Lehrer.
Lehrer, it turned out, was at Harvard about the same time as my father, and so in many ways I felt this was the one record in the box that was truly my father's (my mother, with some piano training, was the music lover in my family). The cover featured a cartoon Lehrer as the devil, playing a keyboard stretching on forever. How could a 14-old boy not be intrigued? I suspect part of my fascination was in seeing the predecessor to Steve Martin's "King Tut" or Cheech & Chong's "Basketball Jones," the convergence of great comedy and music.
Lehrer's songs were short, 12 songs that averaged under 2:00 minutes each, perhaps a secret influence for the Ramones. What they lacked in length, they made up for with biting satire. "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie," "The Old Dope Peddlar," and "The Irish Ballad" packed a lot of punch in their brevity ("I wanna talk like a gentleman again/and put on my white sheet again" from "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie" is as apt now as it was in the 1950s).
However, the song that stuck in my head was "Be Prepared," his anthem to the Boy Scouts. Recognize that I had a miserable time in the Boy Scouts. I can't remember the exact details, but I think I was o.k. in the Cub Scouts, with some good friends, but when I "graduated" to the Boy Scouts, I didn't fit in, even if one of the adult leaders was a dear member of my father's department. To put it bluntly, as I remember it, my abbreviated stint in the Boy Scouts consisted of partnering with the social outcast of the group, which certainly made me feel as if I was either social outcast #2, or, God forbid, #1. I have vague memories of camping out and sucking at all the things that would have made the experience enjoyable, building fires, pitching tents, cooking food. My poor father tried his best, often accompanying me, but like piano lessons with my mother, I whined about how miserable I was, and I stopped.
So, Lehrer's "Be Prepared" was exactly the Boy Scout anthem I needed.
Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well/
Don't write naughty words on the wall if you can't spell/
Be prepared to hide that pack of cigarettes/
Don't make book if you cannot cover bets/
Keep those reefers hidden where you're sure/
That they will not be found/
And be careful not to smoke them/
When the scoutmaster's around/
For he will only insist they be shared/
All of this to a jaunty tune on the piano (to be honest, all of Lehrer's songs seemed constructed around a jaunty piano).
When my parents passed away in 2015, my sisters and I looked through their CDs (who knows where the box of albums ended up), and I was tickled to find that my dad had purchased the CD Songs And More Songs By Tom Lehrer. It featured the same cover as Songs By Tom Lehrer, but also included his other album and songs never put on vinyl. Among the dozen or so CDs I took after they died, this is the only one I have played with any regularity.
Part of the fun is reading the liner notes and seeing that Songs By Tom Lehrer was basically self-published, costing $15 to make, and was pretty much banned from radio (see "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie" above if wondering why). Perhaps there is hope for It's All Academic, after all.
I left a reunion with my sisters not that long ago, not taking any more of the CDs, but a few other cool things, and came back to play Lehrer. Debates from the reunion about the Scouts seemed all the more humorous as I was reminded of Lehrer's final verse for Be Prepared:
If you're looking for adventure of a new and different kind/
And you come across a Girl Scout who is similarly inclined/
Don't be flustered, don't be nervous, don't be scared/
If girls had been allowed in Boy Scouts back in the late 1970s, I might have stuck it out. For once, starting a fire and rolling around in sleeping bags might have made sense.
Tom Lehrer. "Be Prepared." The Songs Of Tom Lehrer. Lehrer Records, 1953. Link here.
Day 152: Sheryl Crow "A Change Would Do You Good."
Day 154: Tones On Tail "Twist."
Unfinished list here.