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Twenty Tons of TNT -- Michael Flanders

Guest poem sent in by Reed C Bowman
(Poem #1268) Twenty Tons of TNT
 I have seen it estimated:
 Somewhere between death and birth
 There are now three thousand million
 People living on this earth
 And the stock-piled mass destruction
 Of the Nuclear Powers-That-Be
 Equals--for each man or woman--
 Twenty tons of TNT.

 Every man of every nation
 (Twenty tons of TNT)
 Shall receive this allocation
 Twenty tons of TNT.
 Texan, Bantu, Slav or Maori,
 Argentine or Singhalee,
 Every maiden brings this dowry
 Twenty tons of TNT.

 Not for thirty silver shilling
 Twenty tons of TNT
 Twenty thousand pounds a killing--
 Twenty tons of TNT.
 Twenty hundred years of teaching,
 Give to each his legacy,
 Plato, Buddha, Christ or Lenin,
 Twenty tons of TNT

 Father, Mother, Son and Daughter,
 Twenty tons of TNT
 Give us land and seed and water,
 Twenty tons of TNT.
 Children have no need of sharing;
 At each new nativity
 Come the ghostly Magi bearing
 Twenty tons of TNT

 Ends the tale that has no sequel
 Twenty tons of TNT.
 Now in death are all men equal
 Twenty tons of TNT.
 Teach me how to love my neighbour,
 Do to him as he to me;
 Share the fruits of all our labour
 Twenty tons of TNT.
-- Michael Flanders
          (of Flanders & Swann)

I ran across this a few weeks ago and wanted to send it in. "Contribution
to Statistics" (Poem #1267) reminded me of it again. Somewhat more
stark than the Szymborska poem, and from a rather different angle, but
with a similar message in the end. For Flanders & Swann, it's an
unusually political and astonishingly bleak song. From the population
statistic (and presumably from the destructive tonnage statistic as
well) it is clear this is quite old, from the height of the Cold War
arms race. Now we have twice as many people, I wonder if each has a
greater or a lesser allocation of explosive potential?

Anyway, like many pieces - poetic, dramatic, cinematic - which succeed
in being affectingly dire or tragic or bleak, this poem achieves its
effect by humourous touches and a humourous tone throughout, which
better sets off the message in its very real horror. The rhythm is
bouncy, the alliteration of the refrain makes it sound cute, and the
constant repetition of that refrain fits into F&S's usual comic style,
though in this case, it also serves to drive home that awful, absurd,
insane statistic. It's been way too long since I heard the recording,
but I assume the performance both reinforced the jaunty silliness to
draw you in, and came down hard enough on the refrain to make the point

(One textual note: this transcription is a corrected version of the main
text I've seen on the web, but I haven't been able to compare it to the
original, or find a printed copy, so problems may remain. I'm especially
leery of the "Twenty thousand pounds of killing" line, since - obviously
- it should be forty thousand, but all texts I've seen so far seem to
keep the "twenty" repetition even in the face of proper conversions.)

Reed

[addendum]

  [Bob J subsequently submits a corrected, "official" version of the poem,
  which has been used to replace the earlier copy. Here are his notes.]

  I offer this as a copy from "The Songs of Michael Flanders and Donald
  Swann"

  Only minor differences e.g. "Twenty thousand pounds a killing"

  International Music Publications Ltd First published in 1977 (This
  edition 1996)

  ISBN 1-85909-439-2

  Bob J

38 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Brian Truran said...

Nothing's changes really. I grew up with two constants. First, that Michael Flanders and Donald Swan made ex years) to raise peels of laughter when I play their songs.

Never before have I read this poem by Michael Flanders. Although, perhaps the nuclear threat has now receded behind other, later, threats it is still nonetheless ever present and may one day bear the fruit of our destruction.

Chris

amvet91alpha said...

I first heard this song when I think I was about 14 when it was aired on the
dr. demento show. I had a boombox with dual cassette and recorded the whole
show..ruined the tape after rewinding it to hear this song over and over
again. Yeah, I grew up in the shadow of the bomb. Is there a way to purchase
it? Either way..damn, but those lyrics are powerful.

Martin DeMello said...

--- wrote:
> I first heard this song when I think I was about 14 when it was aired on the
> dr. demento show. I had a boombox with dual cassette and recorded the whole
> show..ruined the tape after rewinding it to hear this song over and over
> again. Yeah, I grew up in the shadow of the bomb. Is there a way to purchase
> it? Either way..damn, but those lyrics are powerful.

There's a three-CD "Complete Flanders and Swann" collection that is hopefully
still in print - see
[broken link] http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000006T4S/martin

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Vassili Simon said...

As I see it "Twenty thousand pounds a killing" is not an amount of weight but a price per capita. This seems obvious from the previous stanza which clearly alludes to the thirty silver coins Judas was paid to betray Jesus. Another minor correction: they clearly sing "Not for THE thirty silver shilling" which definitely settles the reference.

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Tad Richards said...

I heard Flanders and Swann sing this on Broadway in their show. I think it must have been the night they introduced it, because no one was expecting it. Ant-nuclear protest weren't popular then. Half the audience gave them a standing ovation, half sat on their hands. I think there were some boos, and I think some people walked out. I was among the first group.

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