Lars Ekborg in Tom Lehrer's Beautiful World
special thanks to "Fish" for translations
STOCKHOLM, MARCH 2002
MOST DANCE ORCHESTRAS in the 40's and 50's had in their repertoire a so-called "quiet waltz". A slow tune in waltz time which made a little higher demand on partners' dancing skill than a fox trot.
What Simon Brehm did in having his orchestra play Tom Lehrer's I Hold Your Hand in Mine as a slow dance at the Bal Palais in 1959, we shall leave unsaid. Perhaps it was the jazz musician in Brehm wishing to show his scorn for the dancing public. Perhaps it was only a manifestation of so-called musician's humor.
The young pairs on the dance floor swayed undisturbed to Lehrer's composition about the murderer who cut off his sweetheart's hand. The musicians on the platform smiled treacherously. But Simon Brehm's trick did not pass entirely unobserved. In the crowd was Per-Anders Boquist, future founder of Amigo records. And he immediately wanted to hear more of the morbid American.
"I borrowed Simon's copy of the ten-track Songs by Tom Lehrer. I was quickly bitten and began very soon to sing Lehrer's songs accompanied by the guitar for circles of friends. Don't actually know if Simon ever got back his record."
LEHRER PLAYED IN his 1953 debut during the time he was pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at Harvard. The production cost was fifteen dollars. The first pressing had 400 copies. Three years later, the sales numbers had risen to 500,000.
The cold war made for a new generation of American satirists and comedians. Lehrer's black humor and unembarrassed social criticism turned out to be right with the times. He was a perfect idol for the country's intellectuals. Together with among others Mort Sahl - who shocked the American public by appearing in an ordinary sweater instead of the then-obligatory jacket - Lehrer moved forward the borders on what was acceptable. Lehrer's humor is often morbid like I Hold Your Hand in Mine or The Hunting Song where the hunting-bitten singer's trophy collection includes other hunters, a ranger, and a cow.
Social criticism could already be glimpsed in his debut and on Lehrer's second record from 1959 called More of Tom Lehrer. When President Eisenhower tried to present the atom bomb as a comfort in the cold war, Lehrer answered with the songs The Wild West is Where I Wanna Be and We Will All Go Together When We Go.
Lehrer wrote his most political texts for his third and last record That Was the Year that Was. Then came 1964. Consequently with it the "sixties". A time when the American public shook with race riots and the Vietnam War. The stars were now called the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and even though Lehrer's message was more current than ever, the singing mathematics professor was no longer fashionable. At any rate, at home in the USA.
IN SWEDEN Lehrer was at first a favorite among musicians and artists. In the late 50's his songs were heard among other places at the Tegnér restaurant on Norrmalm in Stockholm. [Ed. note: Esias Tegnér was a Swedish churchman, scholar and poet] Here, the actor Sven-Erik Perzon together with among others Ulla-Bella and Jan Malmsjö were invited to Tabarét. A blend of theater and cabaret inspired by the political revues in Berlin.
In contrast to the Berlin scene, Stockholmers did not feel themselves to be in the heart of the cold war, and many felt a little surprised at the performances at the Tegnér. In November 1960 the Express wrote of Sven-Erik Perzon:
"He runs his tabarét-cabaret and sings naughty songs about atom bombs and such things. In the restaurant, while people gobble up their sandwiches and pork aspic. What a challenge." Forty years later memory has begun to fail Sven-Erik Perzon, but he maintains:
"Lehrer was not in so much demand. He was too morbid and mundane."
TOM LEHRER ENDED UP writing and playing at around the same time as San Francisco's sidewalks became accustomed to shoeless hippie feet. He soon tired of appearing. And the more complex the world became, the less desire he had to comment on it.
"It was easier before. Then I could read the morning papers and giggle throughout my entire breakfast. Now I get so scared and angry that I can't read them until later."
Lehrer also found it more difficult to succeed with his most important artistic goal, that is to say, to make people laugh.
"In the late 60's and early 70's the public no longer wanted to be entertained without a summons, they didn't want to laugh without marching, and the new songs that meant something were not particularly funny."
But if Lehrer had problems getting along with the American Dylan generation, it was completely different in Europe. Here, Lehrer's popularity started to rise.
In the mid-60's he was no longer just of interest to hip Stockholmers. Lehrer was a name in the country's academic circles. And in the decade's later years he was an obvious reference among students and intellectuals-- September 23, 1967, prime minister Olof Palme got involved to quote Lehrer's song Pollution in an environmental debate in Stockholm.
IN LATE SEPTEMBER 1967, right before the start of the term back at Harvard, Lehrer visited England, Norway and Denmark for a series of concert performances. In Copenhagen he was made honorary student at the university and gave three sold out concerts at the Falkoner Theater. The Express wrote, "In Copenhagen he sang, tirelessly, nearly all his pieces. The audience, 99.9 percent young people, greeted it all with rejoicing."
One of the evenings, Per-Anders Boquist found himself again among the concert attendees.
"People went crazy. This was definitely a late sixties and postwar embellished USA-picture that had begun to fade."
Per-Anders had for some years directed the record company Amigo with his brother Jan. The goal of the Copenhagen trip was to meet Lehrer and present the idea of a Swedish-speaking Lehrer record.
"I met him in his hotel room. I asked him if I could do a translation of his texts, and whether Amigo could have the publishing rights in Scandinavia. To my great joy, he answered yes to both questions."
Already by October 3, Per-Anders had sent his twelve adaptations to 11 Sparks Street in Cambridge, MA. The Swedish texts were also translated back into English so that Lehrer could be able to read them. In the letter, Per-Anders wrote that the words came from songs from "the Swedish actor" Lars Ekborg, and told that he had booked recording time.
On October 31, Lehrer wrote back and thanked Per-Anders for a great translation. In spite of the attached comments, most touched on certain rhyme and formulaic marks specific to Lehrer's verses, and refined and improved Per-Anders' solutions. He was careful that in the translations, the message as well as the tone should remain as close to the original texts as possible.
In the letter, Lehrer also enquired about the record release.
"Since you did not ask me for a photograph, I assume you are not planning to have one of me on the jacket. I would prefer not having such a picture there. (The Norwegian record used a terrible photograph of me without my approval, but I hope to change it for the second printing.)"
WHEN THIS record came out, Lars Ekborg was already a Swedish superstar. His breakthrough had come in 1953 with the film The Summer with Monika. Since then, Ekborg had been seen in a long list of films, aside from giving himself a name in the revue scene - first with Kar de Mumma and later with Povel Ramel and Beppe Wolgers. In the time of the Lehrer recordings, he could be seen in the TV programs Estrad and Partaj.
Over the course of the years, Ekborg had gotten a number of offers from record companies. Hitherto he had always emphatically declined. In an interview included with Lehrer's record he said:
"I should be ashamed that I pretended to have a singing voice."
Tom Lehrer's material was definitely something special. He saw the record as an opportunity and aired his own critical reflections on society.
"With material such as Lehrer's I work as an artist. As such a person I can know both the necessity and pleasure of getting up and protesting but it isn't so I can do the greatest good. The picture the public has of me, that I am and therefore should be a private person, goes askew. My task is to stage the protest artistically as a joke. That is my job and it can have an effect."
The pianist Leif Asp was not as publicly known as Ekborg and much less established. During the 60's he had been heard for example with Povel Ramel and on TV together with Lennart Hyland.
Leif Asp was out on a tour with the Riksteater (National Theater) when Jan Boquist contacted him concerning the Lehrer record.
"I remember that we met in Flen in the City Hotel. I ate lunch with the ensemble. After lunch Leif and I sat down a little bit apart and went over the songs. I might have had a few notes with me. I never believed that Leif would rehearse with Ekborg. Leif was definitely an improvisational musician. He made it work right in the studio."
The list of fees from the November third recording detailed that Asp got 52 kronor as "rehearsal compensation". One can guess that Ekborg and Asp ran through the songs while the sound technician Lennart Håkansson straightened the microphone.
EKBORG AND ASP did a great job in the Europafilm studio that day in early November 1967. The two Swedish entertainment pros brought out nuances in Lehrer's songs that were not always heard in the original recordings.
Ekborg's delivery simply reeked of professionalism, as in Hunting Song where he hurried trouble-free through the verses and at the same time with the great conviction of the song's unlikely hero. The interpretation that he also put to test in The Irish Ballad - perhaps the one of all the album's melodies which his voice was best adapted to sing.
Deciding which song is best suited to Leif Asp's fingers is harder. He makes all the record's melodies sparkle. Compare, for example, Asp's feather-light introduction to Be Prepared with the square-cornered lead-in in Leher's own playing.
Both Ekborg and Asp became equally famous when the record came out in December 1967. In Dagens Nyheter (Daily News), Lehrer-enthusiast Karl Ahlenius completed his review with the words: "Ekborg-Boquist-Asp's record is not without penalty points, but I think that only Lehrer himself could be comparable to them, but such a thing can't happen in a foreign language."
And certainly Lehrer did some comparing on December 25, 1967, when he wrote to Per-Anders: "The records arrived and I have listened to them with delight. Not knowing any Swedish, I am obviously not equipped to judge, but it sounds to me as though Mr. Ekborg is perfect for the songs. Please congratulate him for me. That goes for Mr. Asp also, who has clearly spent much time listening to my records (poor fellow); he has inserted a number of lovely things into the accompaniments which I wish I had thought of first."
THE COVER PHOTOGRAPHY for Lars Ekborg in Tom Lehrer's Beautiful World was taken in Lövsta dump north of Stockholm. Photographer Bengt H. Malmqvist remembered that Ekborg "was easy to work with". The session was over quickly - "it took no time at all".
With something like a crooked smile on his lips, Ekborg fastens his gaze straight over the camera. In his left hand he holds some badly disheveled cut flowers, and in his right a pistol pointed at his temple.
As this recording now appears in CD format for the first time, thirty five years have passed since Ekborg and Malmqvist's trip to the Lövsta dump. At the time, this told of the Baltic cod and their threat of extermination. We are standing there in the dump. And the only comfort it gives is the memory that at least, in those days, we could laugh at misery.
[Above Photo of Leif Asp]
Both Lars Ekborg and Leif Asp have passed away. Ekborg died hardly two years after the Lehrer recording, and took with him to the grave plans for a sequel. Leif Asp passed away in 1973.
[Text of Original Album]
Is a many-sided artist who hitherto adorned the headlines as one of "our friendliest singers on records". We certainly succeed with the piece of artistry Ekborg gives in resigning from his restrictive confinement to record production. The password was "Tom Lehrer" - whose songs for many years have been an "in" pleasure for artists and musicians at evening dinner parties.
- American, mathematician at Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts. Out of the forty songs singer Lehrer has written over 15 years, these 12 are a cross section of his work and reflect both his social criticism and his sicker side.
BE PREPARED - The song originally was called "Always Prepared", but to make rhyme and classification go together, we freely adapted the translation of the Scouting movement's English motto.
MY HOME TOWN - Just say what world metropolis can eclipse the nostalgic shimmer that rests on the old home town.
THE HUNTING SONG - As guidance for future investigators who want to resolve whether our quick-singing vocal phenomenon from Hallstahammar or Tom Lehrer were first with a description of the modern hardships of hunting, we can share that Tom Lehrer wrote this contribution back in 1952.
According to STIM's data department, 96.7% of all songs are written for a sweetheart. On this album we have succeeded in limiting this feature to 25%, of which three of the most typical deal with:
WHEN YOU ARE OLD AND GRAY - No-matter-how-old-and-decrepit-you-become-I-will-always-love-you variant.
I HOLD YOUR HAND IN MINE - Variant of the intimate ballad.
WIENERSCHNITZEL WALTZ - A dance favorite, festive a la Vienna, a good natured variant.
WHO'S NEXT - Those who miss Sweden in this song can write to us and get an extra verse, alluding to our country's eventual entry in the EEC and the consequences of this.
POLLUTION - Even though the song has an unmistakable Stockholm character, we believe that you can, through your own effort, exchange the appropriate words and make it fit even in Göteborg, Malmö, and Köping.
THE IRISH BALLAD - In cellars, discarded barges, and elsewhere, today's intellectual upper class listens very solemnly to blood-dripping medieval ballads and chapbooks. For these cultured people - the Irish ballad with all the necessary ingredients, only distinguished by its forebears by the fact that it was written in 1950.
SMUT - Yes, what shall one say about this without getting involved!
SO LONG, MOM - With thoughts of all the LP albums that came out with songs from the first and second world wars, Tom Lehrer has been provident and has already reserved himself a seat at the third world war.
WE WILL ALL GO TOGETHER WHEN WE GO - A modern marching song with a glowing vision of the future.
If you didn't like these Tom Lehrer songs, you will certainly also dislike the LP record we plan on releasing next year.