Tom Lehrer

From Academic Kids

Tom Lehrer in 1960.
Tom Lehrer in 1960.

Thomas Andrew (Tom) Lehrer (born April 9, 1928) is an American singer-songwriter, satirist, pianist, and mathematician.


Musical career

As an undergraduate student at Harvard University, he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends, including Fight Fiercely, Harvard (1945). Those songs later became The Physical Revue. Influenced mainly by the musical theater, his style consisted of parodying the then-current forms of popular song. For example, his appreciation of list songs ( la Danny Kaye's "Stanislavski") caused him to set the names of the chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major General's Song".

Inspired by the success of his performances of his songs, he paid for some studio time to record an album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, which he sold by mail order. Self-published and unpromoted, the album, which included the macabre ("I Hold Your Hand In Mine"), the lewd ("Be Prepared"), and the mathematical ("Lobachevsky"), became a success via word of mouth. With a cult hit, he embarked on a series of concert tours and released a second album, which came in two versions: More Songs by Tom Lehrer was studio-recorded, and An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer was recorded live in concert.

By the early 1960s Lehrer had retired from touring (which he intensely disliked) and was employed as the resident songwriter for That Was The Week That Was, a satirical TV show. An increased proportion of his output became overtly political, or at least topical, on subjects such as pollution ("Pollution"), Vatican II ("The Vatican Rag"), race relations ("National Brotherhood Week"), American militarism ("Send the Marines") and nuclear proliferation ("Who's Next?"). He also wrote a song which (perhaps unfairly) satirized the alleged amorality of Wernher von Braun. A selection of these songs was released in the album That Was The Year That Was.

Missing image

There is an urban legend that Lehrer gave up political satire when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger in 1973. He did say that the awarding of the prize to Kissinger made political satire obsolete, but has denied that he stopped doing satire as a form of protest, and points out that he had stopped doing satire several years earlier.

In the 1970s he concentrated on teaching mathematics and musical theater, although he also wrote the occasional educational song for the children's television show The Electric Company. In the early 1980s, Tomfoolery, a revival of his songs on the London stage, was a surprise hit. Although not its instigator, Lehrer eventually gave it his full support and updated several of his lyrics for the production.

In 2000, a CD box set, The Remains of Tom Lehrer, was released by Rhino Entertainment. It included live and studio versions of his first two albums, That Was The Year That Was, the songs he wrote for The Electric Company, and some previously unreleased material, accompanied by a booklet containing an introduction by Dr. Demento and lyrics to all the songs.

Lehrer the scholar

Lehrer earned his BA in mathematics (Magna Cum Laude) from Harvard University in 1947, when he was eighteen. He received his MA the next year, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He taught classes at MIT, Harvard and Wellesley. He remained in Harvard's doctoral program for several years, taking time out for his musical career and to work as a researcher at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He joined the Army from 1955 to 1957, working at the National Security Agency. All of these experiences eventually became fodder for songs: "Fight Fiercely, Harvard", "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be" and "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier", respectively.

In 1960, Lehrer returned to full-time studies at Harvard, receiving a PhD in mathematics. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching an introductory course entitled "The Nature of Mathematics" to liberal-arts majors—"Math for Tenors", according to Lehrer. He also taught a class in musical theater.

Lehrer's influence on rock music

While Lehrer professed to hate rock and roll —referring to it as "children's records" in the intro to "Oedipus Rex"— his literate satiric style clearly influenced Frank Zappa.

Fans of rapper Eminem have also noted some similarities in Eminem's style to that of Lehrer. The style comparison is best evidenced on Eminem's South Park parody "The Kids" with its piano backing, clever use of syntax and off-beat rhyming, and even references to torturing small animals similar to that of Lehrer's notorious "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park". One can also draw a parallel to the singer/songwriter Mary Prankster, whose oeuvre includes a feminist reading of Hamlet ("Green Eggs and Hamlet"); a satire of a pastoral idyll ("Blue Skies over Dundalk"), reminiscent of "Poisoning Pigeons"; "Student Loan", which echoes Lehrer's "Bright College Days"; and "Tempest", whose style recalls Lehrer's love of rhyming series (e.g., "Poisoning Pigeons" and "When You are Old and Gray").

Reviews selected by Lehrer for his liner notes

External links

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