09 April 2013

Tomfoolery! Happy Birthday to Tom Lehrer

    When I was 14 years old (an unbelievable 50 years ago) a friend of mine and I were spending an otherwise boring evening pawing through my parents’ LP records, which were collected in a dusty rack in the knotty-pined basement of our suburban St. Louis home.  My friend pulled an abnormally small record from the stack.  It was a record I had been ignoring for years.

    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.

                                *         *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

    Every once in a while I get lucky on SleuthSayers.  My every other Tuesday rolls up on a “winner.”  So far I have drawn New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day and November 22nd – each of which readily suggests themes for an article.  And today, though a bit more obscure, is another such winning Tuesday.  I can't really make today's article into something about mysteries, or crime, though it does, at base, have a lot to do with clever writing.

    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. 

    Slowly, but steadily, Tom Lehrer was discovered.  As an example, Lehrer performed his songs sporadically in nightclubs in the 1950s, and while playing Boston in October of 1954 a young writer named Isaac Asimov wandered in to listen.  Asimov promptly became a fan, and the evening proved memorable enough that it is recounted in Asimov’s autobiography In Joy Still Felt.  The song Lehrer reportedly was playing as Asimov entered the nightclub was I Got it from Sally, which over the years morphed into I Got it from Agnes.  During the course of the song it became obvious to the audience, including Asimov, as he recounts in his autobiography, that the “it” was a sexually transmitted disease, and that the ways that “it” was acquired grew increasingly, shall we say, less normative as the song progressed.  Asimov wrote "I haven't gone to nightclubs often, but of all the times I have gone, it was on this occasion that I had by far the best time."  Although, as Asimov marvelled, the song contains no word that standing alone would have been unacceptable to a 1954 listener, in its entirety the piece was nonetheless deemed too over the edge to be included in either of Lehrer’s early albums. 

    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

    There are those in my generation who still hold cherished memories of TW3 (as it was known to its sadly few fans).  Satire, it is said, closes on Saturday night.  TW3, NBC’s experiment in live satire, lasted a scant one and a half seasons, finally expiring on a Tuesday.  While it was around it offered a weekly live send-up of the notable news stories of the previous seven days.  If you don’t remember this gem, or if you are too young to have been there, the show was sort of a Daily Show, but done in a variety format.  Reportedly Professor Lehrer tuned in, liked what he saw, and, upon listening to its musical odes to the events of the week, thought to himself  “I could do that.”   He began submitting songs to the show.  The first one accepted, performed live on TW3 (if memory serves) by Broadway performer Stanley Grover, commemorated National Brotherhood Week.

   The songs written for TW3 provided the fodder for Tom Lehrer’s third, and final, album – That Was the Year That Was, recorded live at San Francisco's famous Hungry I, and released in 1965.  The album not only contains all of the TW3 songs as performed by Tom Lehrer, it offers the original versions of those songs without the dampening (and damning) revisions made by nervous NBC censors.  Fueled by the success of his TW3 songs Tom Lehrer toured briefly in 1965 and 1966.  There were several other short tours, but by 1972 Tom Lehrer had once again largely stepped back from the public eye. 

    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.

    Nevertheless Tom Lehrer again re-emerged, at least vicariously, in 1981, thanks to the efforts of Sir Cameron Macintosh, the Broadway producer extraordinaire later known for producing Cats, Les Miz, Phantom of the Opera, Lady Saigon and Mary Poppins.  Macintosh decided that the world needed a revival of Lehrer’s mischievous musings, and took it upon himself to accomplish this.   

    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.

    Pollution?  Pollution.

    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!


  1. If you don't love Mr. Lehrer you and I are not likely to get along, I find. A few years ago he was interviewed by Sing Out, the folk song magazine. He explained he was not fond of folk songs because they were written by the people. "The people elected Reagan twice. The hell with the people." What a character.

  2. The only part of your post I didn't understand, Dale, was your parents' reaction. Uh, what state did you live in? One part of the Lehrer phenomenon that you didn't mention is how many of us (of a certain age) STILL REMEMBER the lyrics to Lehrer's songs, whether or not we've heard them again in the past fifty years. There was a long thread about it on the mystery e-list DorothyL a few years back, so I know it's not just me and my own old friends.

  3. Oh, yes - me and my girlfriends sitting in the living room, hunched around the record player, listening to and memorizing "Vatican Rag", "Wehrner von Braun", "Poisoning Pigeons"... Laughing ourselves silly and we weren't even stoned. Yet. ;)

    Two other very important parts of our mis-education: Frank Zappa and Firesign Theater. Who can ever forget Brown Shoes? And Brou-ha-ha!

    1. The Vatican Rag is hilarious. I couldn't stop laughing. And the I got it from Agnes is as much so. But what does it mean?

  4. Liz -- I grew up in Missouri. I "found" that album in 1963 and, while a bit hard to remember, things were a lot different back then.

    I am one of those who can sing almost every Lehrer song by heart. In the years before I retired from the Department of Transportation another attorney and I used to perform Lehrer's songs at office parties. (I was Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Litigation and he was the Deputy in the Regulations Office, so we billed ourselves as "the Singing Deputies.}" In 2009 we sang Lehrer's "In Old Mexico" and were requested (err, ordered) to change the lines "How I long to get back, to the land of the wetback, and forget the Alamo." I altered them to "Where safety is protected, cause the trucks are all inspected, let's forget the Alamo." which gave it a transportation spin. But the larger point is that even then Lehrer's lyrics as written (and loved) are sort of cutting edge. The difference between my father's reaction and the reaction from the ruling gentry at DOT is really only a difference in degree, though separated by 35 years.


  6. I remember the debut of "National Brotherhood Week" on TW3 in '63.

    That first season featured a sizable cast, recruited mainly from Broadway and introduced (hurriedly) at the top of the show. Because I was always a credit reader/listener, I made it a point to put names and faces together.
    The singer on "National Brotherhood Week" was Stanley Grover, a B'way baritone with many musicals under his belt; he generally drew any extended songs on TW3, alongside Nancy Ames.
    On "Brotherhood", Grover got a brief assist by Roscoe Lee Browne on one line (listen to the song and see if you can guess which one).

    I also want to mention the show's 1st-season announcer, Dick Noel, who got the job because he was a dead ringer for NBC's then-President, Robert Kintner.

    When TW3 returned for Season 2, the budget was cut, the regular cast drastically reduced, and contributions by non-staff members (such as Tom Lehrer) almost entirely eliminated. The Republican pre-empts didn't help either (nor did competition from Peyton Place and Petticoat Junction); you know the rest.

    I was all of 13-14 years old when all of this happened; that I remember it all these years later probably says more about me than I want anybody to know.

    Oh, by the way, Stanley Grover went back to Broadway, with very occasional film and TV appearances; you might spot him in Network, as the backup news anchor who fills in whenever Peter Finch melts down.

    You see, Dale, this stuff I remember.
    Where I put my keys at home ...
    ... oh, forget it.
    (As I do. :-) )

  7. Mike --

    Great stuff!

    I almost deleted the Steve Allen reference since, on reflection, I am pretty convinced that the song he DID sing was "So Long Mom," not "National Brotherhood Week."

    I also toyed with referencing those Republican preemptions of TW3. The show premiered the first year on Fridays, but then moved the second year to Tuesday nights. (This may have had something to do with the feud the show had with Jack Paar, whose hour long showed followed TW3 on Fridays.) Tuesdays was hard enough to begin with -- how do you "reflect" on a week on Tuesday? But worse, something like 7 of the first 8 shows were preempted by paid Goldwater commercials -- always without warning. I would sit down, turn on NBC, and there would be Barry. The week after the election TW3 returned with a lip-synched bit where Goldwater appeared to announce that due to circumstances beyond his control the political commercial normally seen at this time would not be aired tonight.

    By the way, while you are looking for your keys see if you can find mine as well.

  8. And just to prove I can do it, "So long, Mom, I'm off to drop the bomb"..."I'll see you when the war is over, an hour and a half from now." Sheer genius.

    1. Oh yes. So interesting. And the war will probably be much faster. But he has the right idea. He probably got into a little trouble with his songs and might have had a change of heart due to the government didn't think it was so funny.

  9. "...so don't wait up for me. While you are a-swelter, down there in your shelter, you will see me. (dah dah dah) On your TV..." I was far too young to understand some of those lyrics when I first heard them, but that didn't stop me singing along!

    And for some reason, my brothers and I got out the Tom Lehrer records on Sundays after church. Not sure what that means...

  10. While We're attacking front-aly
    Watch Brinkley and Huntely
    describing Counter-puntely
    The cities we have lost --

    No need for you to waste one minute
    of the agonizing Holocaust, Oh Yeah!

    1. I'm really happy that he did us all a thoughtful favor of allowing us/ or me to access his music. I listen to his songs while I'm taking a walk. They all brighten my day

  11. Dale the book "Too Many Songs By Tom Lehrer" includes an alternate lyric for "Mexico." To wit: "To the land of mananna/and of cheap marijuanna--it's so easy to grow."
    Lehrer was a huge influence on my brief, local comedy career. And I knew a couple of kids whose parents gleefully played Lehrer's albums for them!

  12. "I remember the day he told me the secret to mathematical success: Plagiarize! Plagiarize! Plagiarize!"

  13. Dale, you and I chatted about Tom Lehrer when I visited and when I saw your title, I started humming the Vatican Rag.

    For the life of me, I can't think of what might upset parents. My introduction was from my girlfriend's family– they sat around listening to his records. (now humming the Elements song…)

  14. The sheet music book that Jeff references, "Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer", lives on my piano, right next to the sheet music for the NBC Ellery Queen theme. Therein Lehrer also provides an alternative version of "When You Are Old and Gray," (performed in Tomfoolery) that converts the dark humored song about an aging heterosexual couple into a dark humored song about an aging homosexual couple, proving, once again, that Mr. Lehrer can be completely open minded and egalitarian when he crosses the boundaries of the politically correct. Equal opportunity insults!

    1. I got my copy of "Too Many Songs..." back in college. It's one of the only books I ever wore out and replaced years later!

  15. Wow, lot of comments on this one. My friend Zeke Hoskin, who occasionally comments here, has a new album out soon and one item is a new verse for The Elements, capturing the ones that have been discovered, excuse me, discarvard, since Mr. L. recorded his version.

  16. I was reading your article, but didn’t realize who you were talking about, until I saw that list including The Vatican Rag.

    That’s when I jump up and yelled, “This is the guy Mr. B was always playing!” My high school Chemistry teacher, Mr. Bryant, used to play Lehrer’s records in class all the time. We (the students) loved them – especially when the venerable “Mr. B” would sing along while walking around to make spot corrections in our work!



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