A-suh-puh-ring is here
Life is skittles and life is beer.
I think the loveliest time
Of the year is the spring.
I do, don’t you? ‘Course you do.
But there’s one thing
That makes spring complete for me
And makes every Sunday a treat for me.
Thus begins a bright, cheerful little ditty by Tom Lehrer about spring. Turns out that not many people these days know who Tom Lehrer is. Tom was born in 1928. He started at Harvard at the age of 15, and graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelors in Mathematics in 1946, continuing on to get his Master’s degree the very next year. He has taught classes at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, and the University of California, teaching everything from mathematics to political science to musical theatre. At one point he was a researcher at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, here in New Mexico.
Tom also wrote biting satirical songs in the 1950s to the 1960s. He was dealing with a time period when polite people didn’t even say the word “pregnant” out in society. And yet, he wrote about racism, STDs, the bomb, sado-masochism and a host of other unsavory topics. And he made them funny.
So, you should be expecting something a little odd to come out in the rest of the song. And, you’d be right.
All the world seems in tune
On a spring afternoon
When we’re poisoning pigeons in the park.
Every Sunday you’ll see
My sweetheart and me
As we poison the pigeons in the park.
When they see us coming
The birdies all try an’ hide
But they still go for peanuts
When coated with cyanide.
The sun’s shining bright
Everything seems all right
When we’re poisoning pigeons in the park.
We’ve gained notoriety
And caused much anxiety
In the Audubon Society
With our games.
They call it impiety
And lack of propriety
And quite a variety
Of unpleasant names.
But it’s not against any religion
To want to dispose of a pigeon.
So, if Sunday you’re free
Why don’t you come with me,
And we’ll poison the pigeons in the park.
And maybe we’ll do
In a squirrel or two
While we’re poisoning pigeons in the park.
We’ll murder them all
Amid laughter and merriment.
Except for the few
We take home to experiment.
My pulse will be quickenin’
With each drop of strychnine
We feed to a pigeon
(It just takes a smidgin!)
To poison a pigeon in the park.
When the song was recorded, the orchestration had been handed out to the band, but was lacking the title. In Tom’s words: ‘there was no title on it, and there was no lyrics. And so, they ran through it, "What a pleasant little waltz".... And the engineer said, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, take one," and the piano player said, "What?" and literally fell off the stool.’
On the surface, this is just a weird song about a very sick individual doing some pretty heinous things. Turns out there is a lot below the surface of this.
Tom wrote this song because in the 1950s some of the people in government decided that there was a huge pigeon problem in Boston. And they decided that the way to deal with this problem was to feed the pigeons corn that was laced with strychnine. No joke. In researching this, I found out that we are still doing this! Only since the 1960s, we have used a drug called Avitrol. I found an article from August 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada talking about this issue.
There are those who site health concerns when excessive numbers of pigeons are about. However, this article from the Humane Society debunks all of those and suggests more humane ways of dealing with pigeon populations, including pigeon birth control.
And it turns out that pigeons can be useful! In New York City a study was done in 2016, showing that by monitoring the levels of lead in the pigeons, they can tell when lead levels are getting high in children in those neighborhoods. City pigeons seldom travel more than a few blocks and can be helpful in human health issues. There are even direct correlations between lead levels and violent crime, so an argument could be made that monitoring lead levels in pigeons could help prevent crime.
I’ve fallen down quite a few rabbit holes researching this blog. Most of them pretty horrific. Thank goodness we don’t do anything to rabbits out there in the world. . .
Do you have a favorite Tom Lehrer song? I’ll be playing a few of my favorites this week on my Minnich Music FaceBook page this week, so be sure to check them out.
Until next time!