88 Years on 88 Keys: Tom Lehrer, The Salinger of the Satirical Song

April 9th, 2016 § 12 comments

tom lehrer 1My memory of the moment is quite vivid, if inevitably inexact. It happened 41 years ago, in the early afternoon, in Mrs. Winkler’s seventh grade science class at Amity Junior High School, as we were doing a “unit” on Ecology. In order to brighten our study of the physical environment, Mrs. Winkler announced one day at the start of class that she wanted to play us a song, and proceeded to put a black vinyl disc on the industrial weight turntable, the cover of which doubled as a speaker. The song she played was a savagely funny cri de coeur about how America’s cities and resources had been ruined by the scourge of pollution, from the perspective of a someone warning a foreign visitor about coming to America.

That was the day I first heard, and heard of, Tom Lehrer.

Songs by Tom LehrerNot long thereafter, at a garage sale, I would discover a 10 inch, 33 rpm record, “Songs by Tom Lehrer” (on Lehrer Records), which I immediately seized and paid, I imagine, 25 cents to possess. Lehrer joined Allan Sherman and Stan Freberg among the small coterie of singing comedians to whom I became devoted, committing their songs to memory and happily singing them acapella for friends who had no earthly idea where I’d found these strange but funny tunes. After all, Sherman died in 1973, Freberg had shifted from comedy into advertising, and Lehrer’s U.S. fame had peaked on That Was The Week That Was, a short-lived TV precursor to The Daily Show back in 1964 (where he once took on the decimal system on the original British version of the show).

Tom LehrerWhile Lehrer was a genuinely formative influence, who is rarely far from my mind, I think of him specially today because April 9, 2016 marks his 88th birthday. With Sherman gone for than 40 years and Freberg having passed just last year, Lehrer is the last surviving member of my own sung comedy superteam, and while it’s quite clear that there is nothing Lehrer would like less than to be celebrated for work he largely stopped doing 50 years ago (this BuzzFeed piece from two years ago explains), and even further back, it’s hard to restrain oneself.

This, of course, is the challenge of being a Tom Lehrer fan. While much of the work is evergreen, the majority of it was written in the 1950s and first half of the 60s, and Lehrer largely stopped performing by the time 1970s rolled around. Some have written that Lehrer’s withdrawal from performance was because he is – as a mathematician by training and primary trade – a perfectionist, and that he took no pleasure from concerts because he was determined to reproduce his recordings. Others have suggested that what was daring and ribald in the 50s ran smack against the counterculture of the late 60s, which Lehrer didn’t care for.

tom lehrer tomfooleryIn any event, to the dismay of fans of funny, topical songs, Lehrer refocused himself on teaching. The result for comedy geeks was that he became, almost, our J.D. Salinger. Although he hid in plain sight, his students knew better than to discuss his performing fame; though almost no new work appeared, it was clear that he had not shunned his piano and verbal repartee, as the occasional song slipped out, or the odd public appearance. He gave a rare interview to National Public Radio in 1979; he spoke with The New York Times in 2000. Perhaps his last burst of general public fame came when the producer Cameron Mackintosh brought the musical revue Tomfoolery, comprised of Lehrer’s songs, to the stage in London and later New York. But that was in the early 1980s, almost two generations ago now, so Lehrer fans can even be nostalgic for that moment of nostalgia.

tom lehrer an evening wastedNot all of Lehrer’s material still plays today: in this era when space exploration has been minimized, a song about early rocket scientist Werner von Braun is hardly a source of laughter; post-Cold War, a cowboy crooning about the Atomic Energy Commission is perhaps too obscure. But a jazzy pop tune about Oedipus Rex can still crack up the college crowd, and anyone old enough to know of masochism is sure to find humor in a tango celebrating sexual gratification through pain. On the first day of spring each year, the idea of ridding our cities of the overpopulation of pigeons can still resonate. The NRA probably still doesn’t care for a hunting song about an inept marksman. Sexually transmitted diseases, sad to say, are perennial. And while National Brotherhood Week may be gone, a song about that effort to heal cultural rifts still stings.

It may be the very last thing he wants, but today I’ll place a candle in a cupcake and wish for the continued health of Tom Lehrer, hoping, as I do every day, that he might one day be revealed to have been writing songs all this time, and shares them with us, even if not in performance, then at least as sheet music, the better to celebrate him with. Even if he doesn’t want us to do so.

P.S. Did I mention that Lehrer went to summer camp with Stephen Sondheim? Just wanted to toss that in. The verbal dexterity on the swim team that summer must have been quite something.

*   *   *

Whether you’re a Lehrer devotee or newly curious, I recommend watching this mid-60s live show from Copenhagen, in which he performs many of his best known songs for a relatively reserved college crowd.

While the Copenhagen concert has yielded an array of YouTube clips, much lesser seen is a short performance Lehrer gave for one of his teaching colleagues, stocked with an array of unrecorded songs, heavy on mathematics humor.

Strictly for the fans, here’s a decidedly odd industrial clip of Lehrer singing the praises of a new Dodge car.

If you’d like to introduce younger kids to Lehrer, paving the way for them to discover his more transgressive work when they get older, here’s a bit of educational material from TV’s The Electric Company.

While “cover” versions of Tom Lehrer tunes are rare, here’s the late British comic Marty Feldman having his way with “The Vatican Rag.”

Of course, there’s also Daniel Radcliffe singing “The Element Song.”

I’ll wrap this up with what may be one of Lehrer’s last released songs to date, which is simply the best Hannukah song ever written.


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  • Ellis_Weiner

    Lovely. And here I’d thought I was the only civilian to have memorized The Elements. Thank you.

    • Warren Senders

      I memorized it back in high school in lieu of actually studying for a chem exam. Got a good grade, too!

      • Tony Troughton-Smith

        Me too – I still blame this for failing O level chemistry 😉

  • Warren Senders

    I saw The Master perform in 1968, at a private concert — a fundraiser for Gene McCarthy. I was 10. I still remember it with great clarity.

    • Tim Halle

      Eliot Church in Newton ? In our house Lehrer was second only to the beatles on the playlist, so getting to shake his hand was (for me) like meeting the beatles.

  • Garry Margolis

    Tom Lehrer was the poet laureate of my high school science club in 1956-58. The teacher played a bowdlerized tape copy of “Songs by Tom Lehrer,” but several of us had the LP and delighted in singing “Be Prepared,” much to her dismay.

    In my freshman year at UCLA, Lehrer played a sold-out concert in Royce Hall, where he sang the favorites from his first album (with many in the audience delightedly singing along), but also some of his then-unrecorded ones.

    When he spoke of the necrophiliac who achieved his life’s ambition by becoming county coroner, the young woman with me whispered, “What does that mean?” After confirming that she really wanted to know, I told her, and she recoiled in horror. Thus ended a potential relationship, which was just as well…

    Years later, I took my 12-year-old son to a local performance of “Tomfoolery”, and he *loved* “I Hold Your Hand in Mine”, delightedly singing it for weeks afterwards.

    I heard an interview with Lehrer on a local college radio station some years ago. He was very patient with the student interviewer, and when he was asked why he stopped performing, he responded (approximately), “I liked high school, too, but I didn’t make a career of it.” The interviewer asked if he would ever write any more songs, and he said (approximately), “I suppose if I get mad enough.” It’s a shame he never did.

  • Rehbock

    First encountered him in mid 60’s, I was in 6th grade. His pollution song was printed in the scholastic reader. Still regularily quote him and use his lines. Or as he said : plagiarize – let no man’s work evade your eyes – but please do always call it research.

  • Cecile Lusby

    I memorized The Old Dope Peddler in the mid 1950s in the same way kids learned Dylan songs in the 1960s.

  • Dave Kanzeg

    And don’t forget his wonderful take on the death of Mahler’s wife Alma.

  • Tony Troughton-Smith

    I know many will violently disagree, but I feel Aussie satirical songster Tim Minchin is his heir (parental guidance: many of Minchin’s songs are “close to the bone”)

  • ja29

    After Bruce and I began dating in 1993, we discovered that each of us had all of Tom Lehrer’s music, me on records, him on CDs, and each had the Tom Lehrer Song Book. Because of that, we had to get married.

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