Saturday, September 19, 1992
Tom Lehrer the Man, His Myth and his Music?
In this report I will introduce the reader to Tom Lehrer, mathematician and songwriter. First the man. Where did he come from, who was he, what did he do and where is he now. Next we will look at Tom Lehrer the myth, we will look at the effect Mr. Lehrer had on the genre of satire and though satire on the world and at some of the stories that have sprung up concerning Mr. Lehrer. Finally, we will look at Mr. Lehrer's music.
Thomas Andrew Lehrer: Born in New York City in 1928, as a child took piano lessons, at the age of 15 entered Harvard University where he majored in mathematics. At the same time, he began writing and performing sarcastic little ditties and parodies. This made him a popular fixture at Harvard parties. Especially freshman smokers. He received his BA in 1947 (Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa).
In 1953 he took up performing in night clubs and on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was also in 1953 that he took advantage of a new technology, the long playing record, to launch himself on an unsuspecting world (this he did at his own expense).
During the 50's he worked at the Los Alamos scientific laboratory in New Mexico. Despite the fact that many of his songs had been quite critical of the work being done there, he was still able to get security clearance (Joseph Mc Carthy missed this one). In 1955 he joined the army, His reason for joining goes as follows "I figured I'd better do it while there was a hiatus between wars." While in the army he worked for the National Security Agency where he developed vodka Jell-O (my source for this is the Boston Globe January 1, 1984, I am not making it up). This was done as a way to circumvent a restriction on alcoholic beverages on base (Jell-O is not a beverage).
In 1959 he recorded his 2nd album, (An evening wasted with Tom Lehrer) and went on tour to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain.
In 1960 he stopped performing and devoted himself to his academic calling, returning to Harvard. While there his income went from $1,500.00 a week (performing) to $3,000.00 a year (teaching). In 1964 he returned to performing through the NBC program "That Was The Week That Was" starring David Frost. Mr. Lehrer wrote many of the parody songs on that show. During that year he also recorded his 3rd, and most popular album, "That Was The Year That Was" (songs from the show without the NBC censors) and toured England and Scandinavia ("just because I got a trip out of it").
He then retired from show business once again only coming out to do an occasional benefit for political figures who he felt were going to lose (he did not want to take responsibility for someone if they won and he helped them). In 1971 he wrote several songs for the children's show "The Electric Company".
In 1972 he joined the faculty of UC Santa Cruz. Today Mr. Lehrer lives in both Cambridge and Santa Cruz where he still teaches math. The course title is "The Nature of Mathematics" an introductory course for liberal-arts majors. Mr. Lehrer calls it "Math for Tenors" and also teaches a class in Musical-Theater and spends his time starting rumors that he has died.
Tom Lehrer has had a profound impact on the world of satire. As to the question of why. He was the best at what he did even though he only did it for a short time. He showed the world that it could look at itself and laugh, he was never afraid to satirize an issue but it was always in fun, never in anger. In fact that is one reason why he has given up writing "today everything just makes me angry, it's not funny anymore". He satirized the military, boy scouts, folk song singers and mathematics (Through his song "New Math" and others). In fact the only thing that he came out in favor of was "smut" or pornography.
He spent his career trying to make people laugh and think trying show us how absurd our world is. He was the forerunner of comedians like Gallagher. He was also among the first to take advantage of the new technology of the long playing record and direct mail to sell his songs until he was picked up by a record company. Most importantly he was a leader and still is, over 30 years after he recorded his first album and 20 years after he recorded his last. Because the things that he was talking about were and are, it would appear, timeless (stupid politicians, pollution, crime and love).
Mark Russell political satirist for PBS recently stated that "Tom Lehrer is the greatest satirist who ever lived." Cartoonist Al Capp said in the introduction of The Tom Lehrer song book that "He (Tom Lehrer) is a disillusioned spirit, and let us all be grateful for that". As for what the professionals have said about Tom Lehrer; "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste" The New York Times, "Vulgarity" Pittsburgh Sun- Telegraph "Obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated" London Evening Standard.
Many legends have sprung up about this man and why he stopped performing, he himself says he stopped performing because "my stimulus came from humor however grim the humor may have been at the base. I wasn't burning when I wrote these songs. I think I still have the craft to write, but I just don't have the inspiration." Among the rumors that have circulated about his leaving show business is the one I believed myself that he was forced to choose between performing and math, since Harvard was upset by his political songs. There are those who feel that his song "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" caused the administration at Harvard to make him choose between their school and performing (Mr. Lehrer pointed out that "it amazes me that anyone would think a song making fun of the football team was grounds for expulsion.") Since I 1st wrote this I have found that “Fright Fiercely, Harvard is played by the Harvard Marching Band at every football Game. Other rumors as to why he quit go like this: he was a dope addict, or a communist, or committed suicide (which, if true, would have been grounds for expulsion.)
As of today he has sold 1.5 million Tom Lehrer records and, as he put it, over 3 million illegally made tapes (several of which the author of this report has made himself). Also his albums have been re-released on compact disks, not bad for albums that only gets air time on the Dr. Demento show and were recorded over 20 years ago.
In 1980 the musical "Tomfoolery" opened in London, and after a year's run in London went on to be performed in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong (all proceeds from the South African performances were donated to anti-apartheid organizations). This musical was simply a review of the songs of Tom Lehrer. But as Mr. Lehrer said "it spreads like herpes. I like it because I don't have to put much effort into promoting it. You don't have to advertise herpes."
Let us look now at the music of Tom Lehrer.
In 1952 he attacked racism in the old south before the civil rights movement really started with "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie". He addressed our current war on drugs with his song "The Old Dope Peddler" long before people were dropping out and shooting up (or whatever Dr. Leary had to say).
In 1959 he sang to the world about the real dangers of nuclear war with his song "We Will All Go Together When We Go". He was willing to join his voice with others such as the great Stan Freberg, and point out just how commercial Christmas was becoming with his song "A Christmas Carol".
In 1965 he went all out when he warned us that in 1984, show business would try to take the place of politics with his song "George Murphy" ("Hollywood has often tried to mix Show business with politic from Helen To Ronald Reagan. But Mr. Murphy is the star who has done the best by far. oh gee, it's great, at last we have a senator who can really sing and dance"). He also looks at many other political issues on that album such as pornography "Smut", our military roll in the world "Send The Marines" and many more.
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