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The Vatican Rag

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"The Vatican Rag"
Song by Tom Lehrer
from the album That Was the Year That Was
VenueHungry I, San Francisco, California, U.S.
Songwriter(s)Tom Lehrer

"The Vatican Rag" is a ragtime parody song by American satirist Tom Lehrer. The song purports to be a response to the Second Vatican Council, a meeting that proposed reforms to the Catholic Church. First performed in 1965, it is controversial for its irreverent depiction of Catholic traditions.

Music and lyrics[edit]

"The Vatican Rag" takes musical inspiration from ragtime pieces such as "Spaghetti Rag" (1910) and "The Varsity Drag" (1927).[1][2] A spoken introduction describes the song as a response to the "Vatican II" council—which, among other things, broadened the range of music that could be used in services—and humorously proposes this rag as a more accessible alternative to traditional liturgical music.[3][4] The song begins:

First you get down on your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

The lyrics mockingly list a number of Catholic rituals such as confession, the Eucharist, and Rosaries, and suggest the irony of modernizing an age-old institution like the church.[5] Amy Richlin notes that the song is funny "not only because of the words but because it's a rag".[1] According to Jesse David Fox of Vulture, "Lehrer doesn't just poke fun at a sacred cow, he slaughters it."[3] Eruptions of shock and laughter can be heard in recordings as the audience reacts to both the song's blasphemous tone and its creative rhymes.[6]

Composition and performances[edit]

In the early 1960s Lehrer wrote satiric topical songs for the US version of the television show That Was the Week That Was.[7] Inspired by the ongoing Second Vatican Council, he composed "The Vatican Rag" during this period, but he decided not to submit it because he thought the show would "[do the song] badly or [take] out the satiric parts".[5][7] He instead debuted the song at the Hungry I in San Francisco in a series of shows that were recorded for his last album, That Was the Year That Was (1965).[7]

Lehrer later played "The Vatican Rag" in videotaped performances. In April 1967, he played the song on a benefit show for WNET-TV in New York, prompting hundreds of people to complain to the station.[8][9] In September 1967, Lehrer included "The Vatican Rag" on his Live in Copenhagen TV special recorded in Denmark.[10]

Reception and legacy[edit]

Some Catholics criticized "The Vatican Rag" as blasphemous.[8][11][12] After one show at the Hungry I, Lehrer's performance of the song led to a confrontation with the actor Ricardo Montalbán, who happened to be in the audience.[13][14] According to a former Hungry I bouncer, Montalbán approached Lehrer in a fit of rage, yelling, "I love my religion! I will die for my religion!" to which Lehrer responded: "Hey, no problem, as long as you don't fight for your religion."[13] In May 1967, a Putnam County, New York, schoolteacher used Lehrer's "Vatican Rag" and "National Brotherhood Week" as examples of modern satire for her seventh-grade class; the outcry was such that the school board banned the songs and censured the teacher, and she quit three months later and left the area.[9][15][16]

Conversely, fans of Lehrer consider the song one of his best compositions.[17] Vulture included the song on its 2016 list of "The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy".[3] Stop the Church (1991), a short documentary about an HIV/AIDS demonstration in New York City, uses the song as the background music to church services.[11][18] In 2000, "The Vatican Rag" was the last song played by the jazz radio station WNOP before it converted to a Catholic talk format.[19]


  1. ^ a b Richlin, Amy (December 12, 2005). "Introduction". Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus (PDF). University of California Press. p. 50. ISBN 9780520938229.
  2. ^ Blacker, Terence. "The Anno Domini Rag – The Story of a Song". terenceblacker.com. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c Fox, Jesse David (January 2016). "The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy". Vulture. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  4. ^ "Papal Get Ready: Songs About the Pope". The New Yorker. February 27, 2013. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  5. ^ a b Harris, Alana (November 1, 2015). "Chapter 1: Introduction – A Vatican rag". Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism 1945–82. Manchester University Press. ISBN 9781526102447.
  6. ^ Bianculli, David (April 30, 2010). "Tom Lehrer: '60s Satirist Still Strikes A Chord". Fresh Air. NPR. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  7. ^ a b c Hinckley, David (June 8, 1998). "Nuclear Tests Make Tom Lehrer Relevant Again". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on October 12, 2023.
  8. ^ a b Cohn, Al (May 16, 1967). "Nasty Tom Keeps Coming Back Like a Song". Newsday. p. 3A – via Newspapers.com.
  9. ^ a b Folsom, Merrill (May 12, 1967). "Tom Lehrer Song Barred at School". The New York Times. p. 49 – via TimesMachine.
  10. ^ "Tom Lehrer – Live In Copenhagen 1967". New Hampshire PBS. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  11. ^ a b Masters, Kim (August 14, 1991). "Here is 'The Church'". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  12. ^ "Stop clapping, this is serious". The Sydney Morning Herald. March 1, 2003. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  13. ^ a b Nachman, Gerald (August 26, 2009). Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 143. ISBN 9780307490728 – via Google Books.
  14. ^ Reynolds, Alan (April 1, 2013). "Whatever Happened to Tom Lehrer?". The American Spectator. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  15. ^ "2 Songs Played In Class Bring Teacher Reprimand". The Standard-Star. New Rochelle, New York. May 26, 1967. p. 20 – via Newspapers.com.
  16. ^ "Teacher Out After Row On Record Plays". The Reporter Dispatch. August 18, 1967. p. 17 – via Newspapers.com.
  17. ^ Schnedler, Jack (April 11, 2010). "Pop Notes: 'Vatican Rag,' many more lively Lehrer oldies". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  18. ^ Bernstein, Sharon (September 6, 1991). "KCET Unworthy of Public Support, Mahony Declares". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 3, 2023.
  19. ^ "Rosemary and Mark Schlachter". Showcase with Barbara Kellar. PBS. January 30, 2021. Event occurs at 10:20. Retrieved November 3, 2023.

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