Lehrer, Tom (1928—)

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Lehrer, Tom (1928—)

Tom Lehrer, the mathematician/balladeer, grew up in New York city. He received piano lessons, learning classical music. At his request, his parents found a teacher who taught him how to play popular tunes. In 1943, when he was 14, child-prodigy Lehrer became an undergraduate at Harvard, majoring in mathematics. He earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts within three years. During his undergraduate days, he also found time to write song parodies, particularly a fight song for his alma mater. "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" became popular at the university, and would show up on his first record. And this marks the beginning of one of the twentieth century's most controversial satirists.

With his undergraduate degrees tucked under his belt, Lehrer stayed on at Harvard working toward a graduate degree in math. In 1950, he teamed up with four other musically-inclined members of the university community to form a singing group. One of the group's members taught a freshman physics course, and the quintet put on a performance for the benefit of the students in that course. One item on the repertoire was a Lehrer composition: a song which listed the elements (not necessarily in order) to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General." "The Elements" would later find appreciative audiences beyond Harvard. Lehrer also wrote a parody poking fun at a sculpture on campus which had been designed by Walter Gropius. The poem was published in the student paper—the Harvard Crimson —and republished in Time.

In 1953, Lehrer decided to put out a record of the various songs with which he had been entertaining people around Cambridge. He at first expected Songs by Tom Lehrer to sell around 400 copies; it ended up selling 350,000. He then decided to leave Harvard in 1953 to work for the technical firm Baird-Atomic. His work for Baird-Atomic was followed by a stint in the Army, a tour of duty which was to inspire his hilariously nasty song "It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier." Lehrer then toured the United States and the English-speaking world to entertain his audiences with new songs, interspersed with acerbic commentary. A record based on one of his concerts—An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer —came out in 1959 and sold almost as well as his first record.

Next, Lehrer decided to return to graduate school—he was a graduate student at Harvard for a total of ten years and at Columbia for one year. By 1965, he had completed all the work required for his degree, except for the dissertation, but he decided to stop seeking a doctorate. He began teaching mathematics at MIT's Political Science Department in 1962. He then became a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he has taught since 1971. His work as a math teacher, however, did not stop Lehrer from performing his music; the British magazine The Spectator reported in 1998 that Lehrer had made "109 concert appearances" over the course of his career.

In 1965, Lehrer had some topical political songs performed on the NBC program That Was the Week That Was (a program taken from England). He put out a record, That Was the Year That Was, based on the NBC songs. He wrote some of the songs for the children's television series The Electric Company in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, there was a touring show called Tomfoolery, in which a four-member cast sang an ensemble of Lehrer's old songs. Although Lehrer helped with the production, he did not sing in it.

A couple of his songs seem to foreshadow future events. In a 1965 song about George Murphy, a now-forgotten actor-turned-Senator, Lehrer mused that many Hollywood actors had become politicians, "from Helen Gahagan to … Ronald Reagan?" In his song "Pollution," Lehrer anticipated President Clinton in his advice for coping with America's smog: "wear a gas mask and a veil /Then you can breathe, long as you don't inhale."

Lehrer's humor was somewhat daring—at least for its time. In 1982, he wrote: "I was often accused of bad taste in the '50s and '60s, but the songs which prompted that accusation seem positively genial today." At the very least, his humor was unconventional as evidenced by a word he used to describe President Lyndon Johnson's increasing military involvement in Vietnam—"escallatio." Additionally, the song "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" is about a man who holds onto some of the remains of the woman he killed—"still I keep your hand /As a precious souvenir … " "The Masochism Tango" combines a catchy dance tune with lyrics about S&M, while "Smut" celebrates the joys of porn: "I could tell you things about Peter Pan /And the Wizard of Oz—There's a dirty old man!" And, of course, there is the favorite tune of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

The Lehrer song which caused the most controversy was "The Vatican Rag." Here, he sings irreverently about the Catholic sacraments. Many Catholics were offended by this song, although Lehrer later said that he was making fun of "the Catholic ritual," not "the religion." When he performed "The Vatican Rag" at the hungry i night club, Lehrer indicated that the song was simply a logical extension of the liturgical reforms of the Vatican II conference—reforms under which the Mass could be performed in the vernacular. He further disrupted church officials and members when he said that the Vatican II reforms were intended to make the Church "more commercial," implying that Catholicism was being turned into a "product" that the Church was selling. Thus, the song could be seen as a satire about the perils of departing from religious orthodoxy (although both Lehrer and his Catholic critics would probably disagree with such an interpretation).

Since about 1965, Lehrer has not written new songs for public performance. He explained that "satire was made obsolete when Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize."

—Eric Longley

Further Reading:

Bernstein, Jeremy. "Tom Lehrer: Having Fun." The American Scholar. Summer 1984, 295-302.

Feingold, Michael. "Tom Capsule." Village Voice. December 16,1981, 132, 134.

Lanier, Kristina. "Whatever Happened To… " The Christian Science Monitor. July 16, 1998, 13.

Lehrer, Tom. An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer. Reprise Records, 1959.

——. "In His Own Words: On Life, Lyrics and Liberals."Washington Post. January 3, 1982, E1, E5.

——. Songs by Tom Lehrer. Reprise Records, 1953.

——. That Was the Year That Was. " Reprise Records, 1965.

——; adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray. Tom Foolery: The Words and Music of Tom Lehrer. New York, Samuel French, 1986.

Phillips, Peter. "A True Eccentric." The Spectator. May 9, 1998, 50.

Rovner, Sandy. "From Math to Sass: 25 Years of Succulent Satire."Washington Post. January 3, 1982, E1, E5.