The cover cried out cheapness – a flimsy cardboard sleeve featuring a drawing of a small man, sporting devil’s horns and tail, seated in front of a stylized piano keyboard. Red flames ringed the borders of the album. The title was Songs by Tom Lehrer.
“This,” my friend opined knowingly (since he had already discovered the record in his parents' collection), “is an awesome album.”
We positioned the 10 inch vinyl record on the nearby turntable, turned up the volume, and laughed for thirty minutes straight. Afterwards, tears still in my eyes, I took the album upstairs where my parents were watching Ed Sullivan, oblivious to the merriment that had transpired below.
“I didn’t know we had this record,’ I said, holding out the album toward my father.
In unison the blood drained from my parents’ faces. My mother stared, aghast, at my father. “You weren’t supposed to,” my father stammered, reaching for the album cover, which by the next morning had been relegated by my parents to a more secure hiding place.
* * * * * * * * *
Today professor, satirist, and sporadic performer Thomas Andrew Lehrer celebrates his 85th birthday.
So, what was it about that little record that fifty years ago both sent my 14 year old friend and me into gales of laughter while turning my parents ashen when confronted with the fact that we had discovered it in their collection? One does not have to listen long to Mr. Lehrer’s 1953 collection of songs to understand both reactions. Here, for example, is one of those songs -- My Home Town:
More to come on the musical front, but let’s pause first for a little backstory on one of the greatest satirists of our age.
Tom Lehrer, born this day in 1928, is famous for three record albums released between 1953 and 1965. (While more than three albums show up in various catalogs, do not be fooled – the differences reflect only whether the songs were recorded in a studio or before a live audience. Any way you slice it, there basically are only three albums of songs.) Not only is the list of songs small, by his own count Tom Lehrer also performed a grand total of only 109 concerts. As Lehrer observed in a 2010 interview, writing “37 songs in 20 years is hardly what I would call a career.” But what songs!
It is true that Tom Lehrer apparently never saw himself as a composer or entertainer. His principal career was mathematics professor. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1946, went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics and worked toward, but never completed, his doctorate. He earned his living teaching mathematics at Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, and in later years at the University of California, Santa Cruz. (At Santa Cruz he taught an introductory mathematics class for Bachelor of Arts students that he referred to as “Math for Tenors.”) If we were to ignore his musical contributions, Mr. Lehrer’s published works would consist of pretty thin and dry stuff – he co-authored Random Walks with Restraining Barrier as Applied to the Biased Binary Counter, which appeared in a 1958 issue of the Journal of the Society for Industrial Applied Mathematics, and The Distribution of the Number of Locally Maximal Elements in a Random Sample, published in 1957 in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics. Obviously it is not in honor of these works that we are assembled here today.
It was while studying mathematics at Harvard in the1940s that Lehrer began to compose humorous songs. Trained as a child on the piano, his self-accompanied renditions of his compositions rapidly gained a following among the Harvard student body. Inspired by this success, Lehrer self-funded an LP album – that one with the red flames at the top of the article, the one my father had not quite hidden well enough.
At first Lehrer sold the 10 inch vinyl albums himself for $3.00 a piece, but eventually demand became great enough that local stores around the Harvard campus began selling the album for $3.50, pocketing the half buck as profit. The popularity of the record continued to grow by word-of-mouth, and by the early to mid-1950s Lehrer’s first album was available in record stores across the country. The word “available” is used, however, advisedly. The album was virtually always sold only “under the counter,” since the songs were deemed too risqué and dark-humored for public display and sales. Eventually a second album was recorded, More of Tom Lehrer, a studio recording, and An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, consisting of the same songs, but performed in a live concert.
But that does not stop us here at SleuthSayers – in all its glory, here is Tom Lehrer singing I Got it from Agnes.
No further albums were forthcoming, and by all appearances in the late 1950s Tom Lehrer had left satire behind and was concentrating on his day job at Harvard. Then along came an NBC series: That Was the Week That Was.
National Brotherhood Week.
Explaining his disdain for touring Lehrer has observed “if you have already gone to Cincinnati, there is really no reason to go on to Cleveland.” There is also an urban legend that Tom Lehrer retired from performing after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, explaining that the event rendered satire forevermore obsolete.
Tomfoolery, Macintosh's theatrical revue of Lehrer’s works, was fashioned along the lines of Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris -- the show is a musical revue, without story, presented in a cabaret setting. The revue played in various cities across the United States – I saw a production at Washington’s Arena Stage in 1982 – and played off Broadway for 120 performances. It featured songs from Tom Lehrer’s three albums, as well as some additional songs he wrote for the PBS children’s television series The Electric Company.
Thereafter, other than some re-issues of his albums, notably a nice newly re-engineered 2010 offering, The Tom Lehrer Collection (highly recommended, purchase it here), that has pretty much been it. What nevertheless has fueled the fire and kept Professor Lehrer popular all of these intervening years? Certainly not his formal reviews. The following are included, tongue in cheek, on his album covers:
• "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste." New York Times
• "More desperate than amusing" — New York Herald Tribune
• "He seldom has any point to make except obvious ones" — The Christian Science Monitor
• "Plays the piano acceptably" — The Oakland Tribune
Nor has Mr. Lehrer’s music been widely accepted by other entertainers. I can think of only one “cover” for a Lehrer song, although that one is brilliant. Listen to Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe introducing and then performing the Lehrer classic The Elements.
In a 2010 interview Lehrer reflected on the continued vitality of his satiric works. He noted at the time that what he tried to do in his pieces was to use internal rhymes and clever word play so as to produce songs that one not only would want to listen to, but would want to listen to over and over again. It certainly has worked for me over the last 50 years. And why do the songs, with all of their dark humor, continue to resonate, more than 60 years after many of them were written? Again, in the words of Tom Lehrer: “if you predict the worst, you are likely to be hailed as a prophet.”
All of that said, the truly amazing thing about Lehrer’s songs is how well they do in fact (even if darkly) continue to resonate.
A new Pope faced with issues of reform in the Catholic Church? Time for The Vatican Rag.
The Supreme Court re-examining provisions of the Voting Rights Act? Lets listen, once again, to Dixie.
Scandal in the ranks of the Boy Scouts? That calls for Be Prepared.
Censorship? In a word, Smut.
Harvard unimaginably wins the first round in March Madness? Fight Fiercely, Harvard! (Okay, its about football but you'll get the picture!)
My favorite professor did emerge from the ivy covered halls at least one last time, in 1998, when, after 25 years he agreed to perform in London at a gala tribute to Sir Cameron Macintosh. As we are poised to enter yet another spring, what could be more appropriate than this?
Tom Lehrer has famously observed that "[i]f, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.” Sorry, but it's not going to happen. We are too busy, even after all of these years, laughing.
Happy Birthday, Professor!