There are many historical examples of ideas whose time has come, so that they are discovered independently by different people at the same time. Just think of the invention of calculus by Leibniz and Newton in the 17th century (though according to Wikipedia, students should blame some guys in India who lived 300 years before that), or the invention of booze in China and the Near East about 9,000 years ago. One of the universal ideas which came to fruition in the 20th century was the idea of poisoning pigeons in the park, in the spring. Yes, it is that time of year again, so get your cyanide ready and check out your local parks. This post is intended to give a little background and provide the soundtrack to this favorite pastime of modern urbanites, in English and German.
As with many simultaneous discoveries, things are a bit murky, and plagiarism accusations abound. However, the following facts are certain: There are two different songs about poisoning pigeons in parks, both written in the 1950s, one by American mathematician and satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer, the other one by Austrian political cabaret singer Georg Kreisler.
Kreisler was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, and he fled with his parents to California shortly after the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. He subsequently moved to New York City in 1946, and back to Vienna in 1955. While he started performing in the US, it was not until he moved back to Austria that he became really successful. His most famous song to this day is "Frühlingslied" (Spring Song), better known as "Taubenvergiften im Park" (Poisoning Pigeons in the Park), originally recorded in 1957.
Coincidentally, another Jewish artist with a very similar shtick was around the area in the 50s. Tom Lehrer, in Harvard at the time, began performing satirical songs in 1950, and his second album "An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer", released in 1959, contained the famous song "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park". He had actually been performing that song since 1953, so Kreisler might have heard it in New York.
When asked by a German TV station what he thought about this, Lehrer said literally: "I would like to thank Mr. Kreisler for introducing my songs to the German public". He never said much more about it, but there is a short discussion with him on this message board.
Kreisler, on the other hand, devotes a few paragraphs of his autobiography to it, defending himself against accusations of plagiarism, bashing Lehrer and other detractors. He also makes a snide remark about the use of the plural form in Lehrer's quote: "Which other songs he means besides 'Poisoning Pigeons' will remain his secret." Could Lehrer have meant the striking similarity of the lyrics to "I Hold Your Hand In Mine" from his first record (released in 1953) to Kreisler's song "Ich hab Deine Hand" (I Have Your Hand)? If so, he was absolutely mistaken, this was another universal idea whose time had come. Just like girls with three blue eyes, as Abe Burrows' and Georg Kreisler's songs about them prove.
Disclaimer: Don't get me wrong, I love Georg Kreisler, and I always hum his tune when I go out and poison pigeons. (However, if you plan to include squirrels or take some critters home for experimenting, you have to go for the Lehrer tune, Austrians aren't quite that adventurous.) I grew up on Kreisler's music back in Germany, and only learned about Tom Lehrer much later. Who cares if people steal ideas, the important thing is whether they turn it into shit or gold. And Kreisler has the amazing ability to convey a mischievous Viennese grin just with his voice.
UPDATE: In England they call it "persecuting" instead of "poisoning", but the general idea is the same. In 1967, Bill Oddie sang about his moral principles and good deeds in central London: Bill Oddie - Persecuting Pigeons in Trafalgar Square (MP3). Thanks a bunch to reader Adam and his dad for this gem, ripped from a cassette tape of a BBC broadcast of "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again".