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Musical Maunderings in Sunni's Salon

May/June 2007

As an unschooling family, we are almost always open to learning opportunities wherever they arise ... but I honestly didn’t think that I’d find so many in Tom Lehrer’s music. A friend had occasionally warbled the chorus of Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, so I had a vague idea of what was forthcoming when I queued up The Remains of Tom Lehrer for the first time—but I was completely unprepared for how much my children enjoyed almost all the songs. And boy did they ask me questions! From explaining a “poll tax” to “making book” to international politics, “escalatio”, and Malcolm X, that first time through his songs was equally devoted to Lehrer’s clever music and my hurried explanations. Since that fateful day, they regularly request him, and because I enjoy the songs too, I’m happy to indulge them. Tom Lehrer’s trenchant political and social commentary is as timely today as nearly 50 years ago when he wrote and performed them.

There’s an amazing amount of overlap between what my children and I like, even though our reasons certainly differ. They enjoy the catchy tunes, many of which are easily remembered by them, including MLF Lullaby, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, Who’s Next?, We Will All Go Together When We Go, National Brotherhood Week, and Send the Marines. I enjoy some of his more extreme songs, such as Smut, My Home Town, The Vatican Rag, I Wanna Go Back to Dixie, Oedipus Rex, and one that they dislike because of the disturbing content – The Irish Ballad. Much of Lehrer’s political commentary is every bit as relevant today as when he wrote it; his musical talent is showcased less often—highlight tracks are Clementine and Lobachevsky, which he sings in an excellent Russian accent—but suffuses all three discs with sparkle. For those aghast by the thought of their children hearing these adult, politically incorrect themes, the third disc of the collection includes the songs Lehrer wrote and performed for The Electric Company. He does as well with that as with grotesque love songs. My kids didn’t pay any attention to them until very recently, but now they sing them on their own. They also adore The Elements, which has been set to an amusing Flash animation.

One of the reasons I like The Remains of Tom Lehrer so well is that several of his most popular songs are presented more than once: as a studio version with just vocal and piano accompaniment; as a live version that includes a lot of witty banter as well as audience reaction (the relatively few twitters of laughter during The Old Dope Peddler being especially telling); and at the end, some are presented with orchestral accompaniment. Those who are interested in studio versions alone might prefer Songs and More Songs; those who want only live material will get it on That Was the Year That Was and An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. Anyone who enjoys satire will probably find something to like here—or perhaps learning that Tom Lehrer is one of Weird Al Yankovic’s living idols will entice some into exploring this most singular musician.

Despite being an enthusiastic flute player when young, I was rather late to the Jethro Tull party. Oh, I’d heard them on the radio, but Ian Anderson’s annoying habit of overblowing the flute was unforgivable. Even so, it was hard (I will now admit) not to keep my foot from tapping along to the sprightly melodies. Then a friend gave me Songs from the Wood, and from the first listen I was utterly enchanted. There isn’t a tune I don’t like on it; lyrically the songs hang together nicely, while the music is lively and diverse, with little of the overblowing that still irks me. If pressed to identify favorites, I would instead say that the synthesized-sounding strings that open Velvet Green are bothersome, but I usually forget about them when Anderson’s clear voice comes in; and remark that Pibroch seems overly long, and slow to get going. While The Whistler opens somewhat darkly, the flute refrain tempts me to dance a jig every time I hear it; and Fires at Midnight is the perfect close for this rousing outdoorsy expedition. Each time I play Songs from the Wood I wonder why I don’t play it more often. But there’s so much other good Tull! I also got Heavy Horses when it was newly released, and almost always play it right after Songs from the Wood—the continuation of the nature-oriented themes dovetail the two nicely. Favorites from it are easy to identify: And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps, Moths, and Acres Wild. We have several other Jethro Tull albums, but I so enjoy these that I don’t often explore them. One I do like is a live disc, A Little Light Music. Recorded from a number of concerts, it offers a relaxed or casual take on several Tull classics. Only one other Jethro Tull album has gotten regular play. Minstrel in the Gallery has two singular Tull songs I adore—Requiem and Black Satin Dancer. And while I sometimes queue up a few of the older hits individually, I still prefer the cleaner flute playing on these albums than Anderson’s overblowing style. I know I will listen to all our albums eventually, because each album I’ve explored has revealed another interesting facet of this long-lived, lively group.

The first time I heard John Prine, I dismissed him as being too country for my taste. But clever turns of phrase caught in my mind, and not too long after that I dug through our music library to try to identify him by a song title that I remembered. Finding it on two albums, I enqueued both, and spent the next couple of hours happily absorbed. Great Days: The John Prine Anthology offers a deeper peek into his music, but I often choose the shorter Prime Prine because it has a studio version of Dear Abbey, and Grandpa Was a Carpenter. Other songs I especially like include Hello In There, Donald and Lydia, Sweet Revenge, Illegal Smile, The Sins of Memphisto, and Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard. In all honesty, I can’t clearly articulate what I like so much about Prine — it might simply be the often perceptive lyrics supported by his gentle style and spare instumental arrangements. Prine consistently serves up really enjoyable bluesy folksy country music.

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