Celebrating the Nuclear Apocalypse with Tom Lehrer

By: Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia) //

Like Pez, Peeps, and Pop Rocks, a novelty song is a sugar rush for the ear. The great number of novelty songs about the Cold War attests to the fact that people needed to diffuse their fear of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of nuclear war, with humor and satire. But can anything substantial be expressed about an immense subject like the Cold War through comedy? Perhaps Tom Lehrer’s songs can. They are a sugar rush, but they contain erudite social commentary.

Considered to be among the greatest of musical satirists in the twentieth century, Tom Lehrer began writing his unique songs while he was a student at Harvard University in the late 1940s. He earned an MA in mathematics and was accepted into their doctoral program, but never completed his degree. He had a multi-faceted career. He served in the U.S. Army; composed for television shows; recorded albums; performed as a solo artist; and taught mathematics, political science, and musical theater at various universities. In his songs, he addressed many taboo subjects in the 1950s and 1960s (and today), such as pornography, masochism, drug dealers, venereal disease, the Oedipus complex, and racism. Many of his songs use major keys, pleasant melodies, and engaging rhythms juxtaposed with macabre lyrics like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.”

Lehrer composed several songs about the Cold War. “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be” (1953) pairs cowboy music with lyrics about the continual nuclear bomb tests conducted in the western deserts. “MLF Lullaby” (1964) considers the implications of including Germany in the Multi-Lateral Force, a coalition of NATO countries that sought to collectively arm warships and submarines with nuclear weapons in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The disconcerting lyrics are couched in the music of a soft, peaceful lullaby. This juxtaposition highlights the conundrum of using nuclear weapons to maintain peace. “Wernher von Braun” (1965) questions the Nazi rocket scientist’s motives in helping the United States build ballistic missiles. “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III) (1965) is about a bomber pilot who encourages his mother to tune in to the evening news to see him drop a nuclear bomb during World War III. “Who’s Next” (1965) considers the various nations that own nuclear weapons, or greatly desire them, and who they want to use them on. As each stanza goes by, enumerating all the countries interested in nuclear weapons, the music continually modulates up a half-step. This creates more and more tension, and musically depicts the escalation of the arms race.

But Lehrer’s greatest Cold War song is “We Will All Go Together When We Go” (1958), a sardonic celebration of international unity, a unity achieved through global annihilation by hydrogen bomb warfare. It was first released on his live album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (1959). The song’s form consists of a recitative-like prelude, three verses, a bridge, three more verses, a second bridge, and a final verse. Thus, the form shifts between three different sections and styles: the mock-funereal prelude, the bright, march-like verses, and the melodramatic bridges. It keeps the listener on his or her toes, not knowing what to expect next, like a practical joke, or a nuclear war.

Live recording of “We Will All Go Together When We Go” Tom Lehrer, with extended introduction, from 1959 album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer

Lehrer sings/speaks the prelude in the style of a recitative, in F minor, with a mournful vocal delivery and solemn chords. The lyrics express the sadness of funerals and the grief felt for the deceased by those left behind. The song then shifts to F major just before the first mention of the bomb. The rest of the song, a bouncy march, “cheers” the listener by pointing out that if humanity is destroyed in a nuclear war, no one will have to grieve because no one will be left behind. Lehrer begins the first and second verses with the title of the song (“We Will All Go Together When We Go”), describing universal-death-by-nuclear-holocaust with the somewhat innocuous and indirect word “go.” He makes the verbs increasingly more grotesque with each succeeding verse, piling on more and more black humor: “fry,” “bake,” “char,” and “burn.” Allusions to human bodies as cooked food abound: “French fried potatoes,” “rotisserie,” and “well-done steak.” Each of the seven verses has the rhyme scheme AABBA, found most often in limericks, which are known for their risqué humor.

There are two melodramatic bridges that alter the march-like rhythm of the song. The first is a parody of “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” one of the most popular American songs from the early twentieth century. Lehrer adopts the 3/4 meter of “Old Mill Stream,” imitates its melody, and plays rapidly arpeggiated chords to simulate “old-time” piano. He changes “Down by the old mill stream where I first met you” to “Down by the old maelstrom, there’ll be a storm before the calm,” referring to the blast wave of a nuclear explosion. The second bridge harkens back to the solemn minor chords of the prelude. Yet by this time in the song, Lehrer has laid enough of an absurd foundation that he can describe nuclear annihilation using arcane references to Norse mythology (Odin’s hall Valhalla) and the board game Monopoly. The song ends triumphantly with a sense of joyful madness. The black humor of the song is even apparent in the score, which Lehrer prepared with the help of arranger Frank Metis. The five-measure introduction to the song, for piano alone, has the expressive marking “Eschatologically,” jokingly referring to the end of the world.

Tom Lehrer performing shorter version of “We Will All Go Together When We Go” from 1967 concert in Oslo, Norway

One more detail in this song is worthy of note. In the first, fourth, and final verses, Lehrer quotes a snippet of the bugle call “Retreat” on piano. This seemingly insignificant musical quotation is quite meaningful. Lehrer served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957 as an enlisted man and therefore would have been familiar with various bugle calls. “Retreat” is played on military bases just before sunset when the U.S. flag is lowered. In the context of the song, the quotation could be interpreted as the lowering of the flag at sunset on the final day of the human race. This musical “lowering of the flag” signals the end of the United States, and by implication, the end of all nations. The name of the bugle call, “Retreat,” could also be taken literally. A global nuclear war would cause the whole human race to “retreat” from the face of the Earth. Since nuclear weapons put civilians on the first lines, all of Earth’s citizens are soldiers in the Cold War and could potentially die together in battle. Many of Lehrer’s songs are packed full of quotations and allusions such as these. He proves well that a novelty song can contain substantial, astute and valuable social criticism.

For Discussion

  1. Could this song be considered a protest song? How does comedy in music sharpen a social critique?
  2. How do the different types of music in the song (recitative, march, and “old time” piano) support the message in the lyrics?

From Atomic Tunes: The Cold War in American and British Popular Music by Tim and Joanna Smolko. Copyright © 2018, Tim and Joanna Smolko. Reprinted with permission of Indiana University Press.

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