At A Glance: “So Long Mom” by Tom Lehrer

Almost since the beginning, I have loved dark humor. While friends of mine were reading Superman, X-Men, or even Archie comics, I was reading cartoons by Charles Addams. While others were watching “Little House on the Prairie”, I was watching re-runs of “The Munsters.” And while some were listening to Kiss or Olivia Newton John, I was listening to Tom Lehrer.

Tom Lehrer was a satirist from the 1960’s. He was also a genius – not figuratively but literally. He graduated in mathematics (magna cum laude) from Harvard University when he was 19 years old. He got his MA when he was 20, then taught classes at Harvard, Wellesley, and MIT. Then he taught Political Science at MIT. The man had a lot going on. After further adventures doing research at Los Alamos and joining the Army as a private, he naturally went into satirical performances at the piano.

Wait, what?

He fell in love with musical theater during his travels and he had an acid wit. He brushed up on his skills at the piano and set to writing. His lyrics were the star. They were subversive. For instance, in the early 60’s when acts like Lenny Bruce was getting hounded by the law for obscenity, he was able to write a grotesque song about venereal disease without using a single controversial word. Isaac Asimov loved the song, although he was sad that he couldn’t sing a lick of it outside of the club.

Lehrer recorded a record at a small studio for $15. It had a pressing of 400 copies. It sold out quickly. He did nothing to promote the record, going so far as to adding terrible reviews on the back of the album. The sales spread solely through word of mouth. That was when the UK found out about him. There, he was given an honorary degree by Princess Margaret.

After doing some TV programs and writing further songs, he toured the United States. It was during this time that he wrote “So Long Mom”.

He called it a piece of “pre-nostalgia.” The idea was that every large conflict has its great songs. For instance, World War I had songs like “Over There” and World War II had “I’m On My Way.” Songs about World War III would have to be written before the conflict because no one would be around to write one after. His explanation at the beginning of the embedded video at the bottom sets this all out.

Here are the lyrics:

So long, mom, 
I’m off to drop the bomb, 
So don’t wait up for me. 
But while you swelter 
Down there in your shelter, 
You can see me 
On your TV. 

While we’re attacking frontally, 
Watch Brinkally and Huntally, 
Describing contrapuntally 
The cities we have lost. 
No need for you to miss a minute 
Of the agonizing holocaust.

Little Johnny Jones he was a U.S. pilot, 
And no shrinking vi’let was he. 
He was mighty proud when World War Three was declared, 
He wasn’t scared, 
No siree! 

And this is what he said on 
His way to Armageddon: 

So long, mom, 
I’m off to drop the bomb, 
So don’t wait up for me. 
But though I may roam, 
I’ll come back to my home, 
Although it may be 
A pile of debris. 

Remember, mommy, 
I’m off to get a commie, 
So send me a salami, 
And try to smile somehow. 
I’ll look for you when the war is over, 
An hour and a half from now.

The music is jaunty – a perfect representation of a bouncy, good old-fashioned war song. I think he nails this.

And what of Tom Lehrer now? Here is where my respect shoots through the roof. He left satire when Henry Kissinger recieved the Nobel Piece Prize in 1973. He said that giving the prize to Kissinger made satire obsolete. Later, he said the real reason was he found touring a bore and was tired of playing the same songs over and over. He did write a few songs for the TV show “The Electric Company.” When I found out which ones, I found it odd how both his satirical music and children’s songs shaped my childhood. He retired to teach mathematics and musical theater at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lehrer’s own take on his music?

“If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

So Long Mom by Tom Lehrer