Words of Wisdom

Youth is wasted on the young.

Monday, 27 October 2008

When The Air Becomes Uranious/Uraneous?

As a child, I was introduced to the Periodic Table of Elements by my academic father through the genius of Tom Lehrer.

With this as a taster I was led to the delights of 'The Masochism Tango' and around such joys as 'The Vatican Rag'. By the tender age of 17 I knew the vast majority of the brilliant man's works, off by heart.

This term, my history class have begun to explore The Cold War and it has brought to mind the fact that this part of history and I are intimately connected.

Apart from the delicious comedy of Don Adams in 'Get Smart', I remember as a child the excitement of 'atomic power'; the Thunderbirds with their atomic engines and being transfixed by the beauty of my father's National Geographic magazines, showing sensational shots of the breathtaking mushroom clouds over Bikini Atoll. On TV, Disney showed a model of nuclear fission using ping pong balls and mousetraps and at Disneyland we 'Journeyed To Inner Space', into the spaces between atoms themselves where electrons buzzed past our heads and the sense of wonder overtook me.

Later of course I was one of the many children/young adults who had nightmares about nuclear war. I used to dream that I was in a car trying to outdrive the cloud of fallout. These 'stress' dreams continued into university and the early 80s before petering out in favour of being onstage and not knowing my lines.

While at Uni I took part in, what we thought at the time ,was a very clever and witty stage show/cabaret called 'The 1980 Floorshow'. It was around the time of the election which brought Ronald Rayguns to the Presidential podium and we mocked the Americans for their choice, sporting 'Youth for Regan' armbands and singing 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me'. A good deal of the show was written around the songs of Tom Lehrer, notably 'So Long Mom, I'm off To Drop The Bomb', billed by its author as 'pre-war nostalgia' because there wasn't going to be anyone left after the next war to be nostalgic.

Now, as I lead my class through the history of the post-nuclear age I am toying with the idea of introducing them to some of these songs. I have downloaded them and printed out lyrics but in the back of my mind lurks a small troll of doubt. What if they don't find them funny?

I mean, they were old when we heard them but they were still relevant to the political landscape. We were all Python nerds and academics who loved the plays on words, the wild rhymes ("you can do anything you want if, you have cleard it with the pontiff") and the whimsical music hall tunes. What will the children of today's cynical, 'in your face', generation think of them? I mean, no one writes clever songs anymore. There's no 'suggestion' or innuendo in today's music; today the singer tells us exactly what he will do with that ho' when he gets various parts of his anatomy on her. Why would kids appreciate the ironic slant of "We will all go together when we go"?

So I am torn. Today, they watched a video which showed an incredible US 'educational film' called 'Duck and Cover'. It was so bizarre with families sheltering under a picnic tablecloth as the 'bomb' went off; the kids were in hysterics.; but they were laughing 'at' the film. Can I risk my beloved and deliberately funny Tom Lehrer being held up to the merciless scrutiny of Year 10?

As a delicious addendum to this, I discovered a website which quotes the original inspiration for the song 'So Long Mom'. It is, apparently, a popular World WarTwo song entitled:

by J. Fred Coots

Goodbye mama
I'm off to Yokohama
For the red, white, and blue
My country and you.
Goodbye mama
I'm off to Yokohama
Just to teach all those Japs
The Yanks are no saps
A million fightin' sons-of-Uncle Sam, if you please
Will soon have all those Japs right down on their Japa-knees
So goodbye mama
I'm off to Yokohama
For my country, my flag, and you.

Say Goodbye to mama.
You're off to Yokohama.
So be brave and be strong,
You won't be gone long.
Say bye-bye mama,
The land of Yama-Yama,
Until April, I guess,
Will be your address.
On Christmas Eve when dad and I are trimming the tree,
You'll do your share of trimming out on land and on sea.
Say goodbye to mama,
You're off to Yokohama,
For your country, your flag and me.

Goodbye mama,
I'm off to Yokohama
For the red, white, and blue,
My country and you.
Goodbye mama,
I'm off to Yokohama
Just to teach all those Japs
The Yanks are no saps.
A million fightin' sons-of-Uncle Sam, if you please
Will soon have all those Japs right down on their Japa-knees.
Goodbye mama,
I'm off to Yokohama,
For my country, my flag, and you.
I thought you'd like that one dad.


headbang8 said...

Hold that thought! You'll get a longer comment from me later, but I can't stop now to chat.

You simply must introduce your kids to this. Be perpared for them not to think it particularly funny. ("Be Prepared" was another song, no?)

The timeless (and best) Lehrer wasn't political. Start them off with "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park". What a crowd pleaser!

Then you'll need to put it like an anthropological study. Consider the lines:

"Although you may swelter,
down there in your shelter,
You can see meee
On your Tee Vee!"

Why did people find them so funny and satirical then? To sixties adults, war on TV would have been as bizarre as adults today following a war on Twitter.

Get them to imagine how people fifty years hence will react to the You Tube creations we see around the current US election. How unfunny they will become, and how fast. How fast will Sarah Palin jokes take to fade? How long did it take for us to mare Al Gore into a statesman from a humourless loser.

You might point out that Lehrer came to us on our very own low-tech version of You Tube. The bootleg cassette.

BTW, did I tell you that Mudderfugg once called me to ask for a ten-grand loan? (That's a side-story, everyone.)

headbang8 said...


Oh, a bit of 2008 relevance:

"...and I'm learning Chinese, said Werner von Braun."

Arizaphale said...

Yes, I'd tagged that bit! I've also printed out some wikipedia on wernher describing how seamlessly he made the transition from V2 rockets to the space race. Wish me luck.

A Free Man said...

Your post made me think of "Dr. Strangelove" and Tom Robbins novels and Vonnegut. I love me some cold war humour.

SSG said...

man, I know NOTHING of this. like we never got taught much about the atomic bomb, save for watching Raymond Briggs "Where the wind blows". and Lehrer? Never heard of him. But I think I would have liked to and am going to look him up now- clever songs always go down well with people, no matter what generation they're from, as long as they are clever enough to see the jokes, otherwise it's no funny.

Anonymous said...

Did you introduce your class to this material? What kind of reactions were there?

And - where is your hubby in the race???