Tom Lehrer - Satirical Singer and Songwriter
Created | Updated May 13, 2013
Mr Lehrer's muse does not suffer from such inhibiting factors as taste
- New York Times.
Tom Lehrer is a highly respectable academic. He has enjoyed a long, successful career as a mathematics lecturer, working at the world-famous Harvard University among other distinguished seats of learning.
However, a sizeable cult following all over the world knows him as the writer and singer of songs with titles like 'Poisoning Pigeons In The Park' and 'The Old Dope Peddler'. His songs, mostly recorded in the 1950s and 1960s, revealed a deliciously dark wit. As a lyricist, he was ahead of his time; he wrote songs as scathingly satirical as some of those written by Bob Dylan, or even Jello Biafra.
Lehrer, however, was never a rocker, or a protest singer like the young Dylan. In fact, Lehrer ridiculed the protest anthems of the 1960s in his song 'The Folk Song Army'. He was an accomplished piano player and his songs were often as musically and lyrically elegant as those of Noel Coward. Much of the magic of Lehrer's music came from the way he married withering words to graceful, urbane melodies.
Lehrer was always a reluctant celebrity. He disliked touring and virtually retired from performing in 1967, yet his cult following endures to this day. Like Charles Addams' cartoons, Lehrer's songs could be both macabre and hilarious, and have a timeless appeal.
Bright College Days
Thomas Andrew Lehrer was born in New York City, USA, on 9 April, 1928. He learned to play the piano as a child and began to write parodies of contemporary popular songs at an early age. He went to Harvard to study mathematics in 1944, and earned a master's degree inside three years. He remained at Harvard as a graduate student until 1953.
While studying at Harvard, Lehrer wrote The Physical Revue, a stage show full of satirical songs. It premiered on the Harvard campus in January 1951 and an updated version of the show was staged in May 1952.
Lehrer increased his following by singing his songs in cafés and at student gatherings around Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard. His early songs included two wry looks at student life: 'Bright College Days' and 'Fight Fiercely, Harvard'. In response to a growing demand for recordings of his songs, he produced Songs By Tom Lehrer, a ten-inch vinyl album with a total running time of 22 minutes. It was recorded in a single short session at a small local studio on 22 January, 1953.
Years later, Tom recalled:
It took only about an hour. I had performed all the songs many times, so most of them required only one take. If it wasn't satisfactory, I would do it again, recording over the first take so no splicing was needed, and by the end of the hour we had a complete edited tape. The cost of the whole recording session was $15.
The songs featured on the album included 'My Home Town', a mock-sentimental number about a town full of psychopaths and perverts:
I remember Sam, he was the village idiot.
And though it seems a pity, it
He loved to burn down houses just to watch the glow,
And nothing could be done,
Because he was the mayor's son.
It also featured a kind of love song, 'I Hold Your Hand In Mine', about a man who murdered his girlfriend and then cut off her hand, so that he could hold it whenever he wished:
The night you died I cut it off,
I really don't know why.
For now each time I kiss it
I get bloodstains on my tie.
The original pressing of Songs By Tom Lehrer consisted of just 400 copies. But those soon sold out, and word about the album spread as Harvard students went home for Christmas. Lehrer had to keep having more and more copies pressed in order to satisfy the spiralling demand for his record, and the album eventually sold 350,000 copies.
Lehrer's musical career was interrupted when he was drafted into the US Army in 1955. He was honourably discharged in 1957, and in 1959 he recorded a second album, More Of Tom Lehrer. It featured some of his best-known songs, including the magnificent 'Poisoning Pigeons In The Park', an ode to the 'joys' of an unusual pastime:
We'll murder them all amid laughter and merriment
Except for the few we take home to experiment.
My pulse will be quickenin'
With each drop of strychnine
We feed to a pigeon -
It just takes a smidgen! -
To poison a pigeon in the park!
More Of Tom Lehrer also introduced listeners to a curious combination of ballroom dancing and sado-masochism, in 'The Masochism Tango':
Your eyes cast a spell that bewitches.
The last time I needed 20 stitches.
To sew up the gash
That you made with your lash
As we danced to the Masochism Tango.
Lehrer combined science with music in another song featured on the album. 'The Elements' set the names of every element then known to scientists to the melody of 'The Major-General's Song' from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates Of Penzance, before concluding:
These are the only ones
Of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others
But they haven't been discovered1.
A live recording of the same songs was made during a concert at Harvard, and issued as an album entitled An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer.
Lehrer then successfully toured Europe, where he recorded another live album: Tom Lehrer Revisited, featuring live versions of songs from his debut LP. In 1959, Lehrer decided to give up performing live after finding that his attention was wandering during his shows.
Lehrer has explained:
I always considered myself a writer rather than a performer. I didn't relish the prospect of doing pretty much the same show night after night, any more than a novelist would enjoy reading his book aloud every night. I wanted to do the songs only until I was satisfied with the performance and then record them. I wanted the audience to leave thinking 'Weren't those songs funny?', whereas most, if not all, comedians want them to leave thinking 'Wasn't he (or she) funny?'
However, Tom didn't retire immediately, because he'd had some interesting offers. A small record company called Unicorn Records persuaded Lehrer to record four of his songs with an orchestra. The musicians didn't know quite what they were getting involved with, as Lehrer later recalled:
They put the music in front of them, no title, no lyrics, no nothing, and they ran through it a few times and they got it. I went into the booth to record, and the engineer said '"Poisoning Pigeons In The Park", take one' and the piano player said 'Whaat?' and literally fell off the bench.
A single taken from the sessions, 'Poisoning Pigeons In The Park'/'The Masochism Tango' sold moderately well in Britain, but flopped in the USA. The other two tracks recorded at the orchestral session, 'The Hunting Song' and 'We Will All Go Together When We Go', remained unreleased for decades, finally surfacing on compilation albums in the 1990s after Lehrer dusted off tapes that had been languishing in his basement for many years.
In 1960, Lehrer toured Australia and New Zealand. He received a mixed response in Australia, including some harsh press criticism of his 'sick' humour. He went on to play a few more shows in the UK in the summer of 1960, but then withdrew from the world of music to resume his academic career.
In early 1964, Lehrer submitted some songs to That Was The Week That Was, the American version of the pioneering British satirical TV show. He didn't appear on the show, but his songs were frequently performed by the regular cast.
After the TV show ended the following year, Lehrer briefly returned to live performance. He played a series of club dates that were recorded for an album, That Was The Year That Was, which became a Top 20 hit on the Billboard album chart. Most of the songs on the album were those that had been written for the TWTWTW television show, although not always quite as the TV audiences had heard them. When recording the album, Lehrer took the opportunity to restore several lines that the TV show's producers had removed from the broadcast versions of his songs.
That Was The Year That Was included 'The Vatican Rag', a satire on the rituals of the Catholic Church:
Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There, the guy who's got religion'll
Tell you if your sin's original
If it is, try playin' it safer
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate!
The album also featured some of Lehrer's most explicitly political songs. 'Send The Marines' was inspired by the American government's foreign policies of the early 1960s, and some might feel that it retains a powerful resonance today:
For might makes right,
And till they've seen the light,
They've got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
Till somebody we like can be elected.
'Wernher Von Braun', meanwhile, concerned a scientist who was then a leading light in the American space programme, but had previously developed missiles used by the Germans during the Second World War:
Don't say that he's hypocritical,
Say rather that he's apolitical.
'Once the rockets are up,
Who cares where they come down?
That's not my department,'
Says Wernher von Braun.
Lehrer Leaves the Stage
In 1967, Lehrer was persuaded to go on a short concert tour of Scandinavia, accepting the offer mainly because he'd never been there and wanted to do so. He played three shows in Norway and three in Denmark, and also made a return visit to London. The tour ended with a date at the Falkonercentret theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 12 September, 1967. Lehrer has made guest appearances at fund-raising rallies for left-of-centre political causes since then, but that date in Copenhagen remains his last-ever full concert appearance.
By way of explanation, Lehrer has said: 'Occasionally people ask, "If you enjoyed it" - and I did - "why don't you do it again?" I reply, "I enjoyed high school, but I certainly wouldn't want to do that again"'.
In 1972, Lehrer wrote some songs for a children's TV show, The Electric Company. Children's TV was an unlikely outlet for Lehrer's talents, but he enjoyed the chance to write jokey ditties about the quirks of the English language for the educational show.
But when the highly controversial US politician Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, Lehrer announced his retirement from songwriting, feeling that the award of the prize to Kissinger was more outrageous than anything a satirist could create.
Lehrer declared: 'It was at that moment that satire died. There was nothing more to say after that.'
The Show Must Go On
In 1980, Lehrer updated some of his old songs for a stage show based on his work, Tomfoolery, which became a hit all over the English-speaking world.
The songs reworked for the show included 'I Got It From Agnes', a new version of a number called 'I Got It From Sally' that Lehrer wrote in 1952 and regularly performed live in the 1950s, but never recorded then because he considered it to be too risqué. In fact, though, the lyric never explicitly states what 'it' is, so it's up to the listener to interpret lines such as:
I love my friends, and they love me,
We're just as close as we can be.
And just because we really care,
Whatever we get, we share!
Max got it from Edith,
Who gets it every spring.
She got it from her Daddy,
Who gives her everything.
She then gave it to Daniel,
Whose spaniel has it now.
Our dentist even got it,
And we're still wondering how.2
One old Lehrer song provided an ideal finale for the show. It was 'We Will All Go Together When We Go', in which Tom took an upbeat look at the prospect of humanity's annhilation in a nuclear war:
We will all bake together when we bake.
There'll be nobody present at the wake.
With complete participation
In that grand incineration,
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.
You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas.
Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars.
The success of Tomfoolery didn't tempt Tom back to a musical career, although he has occasionally dabbled in music making. In recent years, he has occasionally contributed new songs to Garrison Keillor's shows on American radio. In 1996, Lehrer actually recorded one new track, finally recording his 1952 composition 'I Got It From Agnes' for inclusion on a compilation album called Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer. In general, though, Tom has preferred to concentrate on teaching mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Even so, his cult status as a singer-songwriter has survived into the 21st Century. He received a gold disc for That Was The Year That Was in 1996, when the album finally clocked up sales of half a million copies in the USA more than 30 years after its release. In 2000, Lehrer's enduring popularity was confirmed when Rhino Records released a three-CD box set, The Remains Of Tom Lehrer, containing most of Lehrer's recorded works. His poisoned pigeons and dancing masochists continue to charm a whole new generation of fans.