Tom Lehrer, man ahead of his time

Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh.  I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals.  I was struck by the following:

1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.

3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate.  Might that be the central theme in his thought?

4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.”  He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.

5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher.  His audience seems to take this interest in stride.  This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.

6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original.  And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics.  I still enjoy hearing them as music.  And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?

7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”).  He once said: “If, 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.”

It would be hard to pull this off today.  Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended.  Plus he is flat-out funny.  He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.

8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.

9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent.  He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.

10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements.  Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.

11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA.  He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.



Phew! I thought this was an obituary post. My personal favorite is Lobachevsky.

Yes, can we make a rule about posting something like this for someone over, say, 80? Lead with "No, he's not dead"

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A real prophet who did not profit (had to pay to get his records recorded, nobody would air them), never heard of him until now. (Wikipedia): "Despite their topical subjects and references, the popularity of these songs has endured; Lehrer quoted a friend's explanation: "Always predict the worst and you'll be hailed as a prophet.""

Thanks for this post.

As a college student at UC Santa Cruz in 1973, I had a Harvard-trained math professor who also happened to be name Tom Lehrer. I asked him after class one day if it was strange to have the same name as the legendary singer and songwriter..

“You have no idea how strange it is” he answered.

A classmate had to explaine to me that there were not two Tom Lehrers. Our professor, it seemed, had graduated summa in math from Harvard, then spent a decade+ writing songs and performing. Now, he just taught.

Mortified, I never approached him again, although he was a great teacher (I remember him calling the class “math for tenors”).

Thanks for this comment.

Hi Tyler.

You used the term political correctness. Could you give me your definition of that? I don't see how the one that came up when I googled it really applies to Tom Lehrer's work. I think political correctness is a term Lehrer might have skewered as it seems quite vague and doesn't appear to be used in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense these days.

".... his main enemy or target was political correctness." It doesn't seem to be applied to Lehrer

what if pc is mostly
whatever the dominant paradigm
of the era is?

Check out "Folk Song Army" satirizing the politically correct of the 1960's.

IDW may refer to:

IDW Publishing, a U.S. comic book publisher
Individual Defence Weapon, a category of small arm
Informationsdienst Wissenschaft, a German science news service
Intellectual dark web, a loosely-defined philosophical neologism coined by Eric Weinstein
Inverse distance weighting, a mathematical method for surface fitting
Investigative Data Warehouse, an FBI surveillance database

I suspect the reference is to the intellectual dark web, but would guess that somewhere in the range of 1 in 1,000 average Americans would guess that without doing any research.

Overuse of obscure abbreviations is one of the biggest sources of bad writing in the world today

I think average Americans tend to avoid this board, and that most readers here understand IDW without any problem.

I'm a reader here and I don't know what IDW means.

Larry and DJT are both exemplars of the new 21st Century man. They intuit their facts. (You'll note that he didn't commit to a definition of the term, of course)

Yeah, I had to look it up too, and concluded it was the publishing company.

Anyone have leads on other artists who resonate in a similar way to Lehrer today? Maybe Todd Snyder?

Theyre probably writing for the Daily Show these days

Todd Snyder is up there. But there is also the comedic genius that is Bo Burnham.

There's also a whole universe of geek culture that should be of interest. Jonathan Coulton is one of its better representatives. There are simply too many to list. Lehrer was great but there are many greats today, too.

Thanks, that helped... YouTube presented a playlist with a bunch more quirky artists.

New Math still holds up today, as every few years my kids switch to a different system, none of which I understand or can help with.

I ran into this the other day with my 4th grader. He had a worksheet, and I had no difficulty solving the problems on it, but it requested the first section be done one way and the second a different way, and I had no idea what the terms they used actually meant. (Mind you, I have a BS & MS in math.)

In an ideal world, shouldn't someone with a Masters know what is and is not effective as ways to teach kids to think mathematically? That is, your post seems to suggest that you blame your kid's school, but the problem might be your insufficient education. Isn't communication (etc.) of your expertise part of what you should have been taught? And it follows logically from that, that the terminology should be familiar to you, if not from your schooling, then from your continuing education. (as an aside, I tried very very hard to understand why you mention you were able to solve 4th grade math problems, but I failed. It sounds as if you think that "feat" unusual for an adult.)

You seem to be a person who has never had to help his 4th grader's homework.

" I tried very very hard to understand why you mention you were able to solve 4th grade math problems, but I failed. It sounds as if"

Being able to do 4th grade works is NOT the point, not knowing how the school wants the work done (they want at least two different methods, and the terminology they employ is unfamiliar to the parent) is.

New Math doesn't hold up unless you were born before the time the song was written.

Having gone to school in the 80s, the supposedly confusing part of the song makes perfect sense to me and it's the supposedly easy part in the first verse I found confusing first time I heard it.

New Math does hold up because if you learned math in the 80s, you won't be able to help your child with their math homework today, unless you're a math teacher.

'He hardly ever sung about social themes'

Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect - guess it depends on how you view Vatican II. The Catholic members of the Federalist Society remain pretty much opposed to it even today, it appears.

Shouldn't it be "sang" and not "sung"?

Yes. And often "sank" rather than "sunk". I do like "thunk" though.

The target of Lehrer's satire wasn't political correctness, but the "establishment", meaning those who hold the power in the country, real power, like the power to conduct wars, the power to restrict civil rights, the power to censor, the power to jail. What Cowen does with his comments about political correctness is turn it on its head, directing the satire not to those with power but those without. Sure, there is overlap, but only at the margin, since the PC police on college campus has no power beyond the confines of the campus, and even then the power is subject to ridicule, ridicule from the left as well as the right. Members of the IDW like to think of themselves as bravely fighting powerful forces on the left. Powerful forces? Don Quixote fought more powerful forces.

F.M. Forni died on December 1st ( Forni promoted civility, having founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, and having written two popular books on the subject, “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct,” published in 2002, and “The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude” (2010). What is civility, and how is it distinguishable from political correctness? Here is Elizabeth Bruenig with an excellent account of the difference and similarity:

A lot of practical political correctness comes down to powerful people in the establishment pretending to be powerless in order to justify the use of their power in shutting down ideas they don't like.

I am aware that in small college towns the PC police can become Facebook vigilantes and make the life of the object of their wrath miserable. But that is small bore compared to what well-funded propagandists can do with the highly-paid assistance of companies like Cambridge Analytica, who have the power to turn the Disciples against Jesus.

The target of Lehrer's satire wasn't political correctness, but the "establishment", meaning those who hold the power in the country, real power

How does that theory account for Folk Song Army? To my untutored ears, it sounds to me like he's parodying sanctimony and fatuous virtue signalling

well then how about a little modern satire directed at a powerful united states senator who holds as you say "the power to conduct wars, the power to restrict civil rights, the power to censor, the power to jail. "

u.s. senator hiro1 says "shut up men"
doncoyote says "go f*** yourself u.s. senator hiro"

1 Georgetown law graduate

good point
we are gonna have to step up and say
shut up men is not a very compelling legal argument for a
georgetown law graduate
and it says here your a buddhist

The Harvard University Band adopted Fight Fiercely Harvard into their standard repertoire in 1978. They asked Lehrer to conduct the premier at a football game, but he refused.

I've long liked Tom Lehrer, both his lyrics and his music. Vatican Rag is fantastic. National Brotherhood Week is great too.
His main target then, which always remains relevant, is hypocrisy. Yet always trying to be fun.

Mostly fun in Masochism Tango -- a song I was willing to sing in a Karaoke Bar about 8 years ago. (I ache for the touch of your lips, dear; tho much more for the touch of your whips, dear...)

Daniel Radcliffe was able to sing the Element song, without music!

When I was young I thought he was wonderful. Most American comics left me cold, but not TL; bright as buttons, he was.

"Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem": something he had in common, then, with another Great American, Ronald Reagan. Someone should write a PhD on whether TL influenced RR.

I gotta admit TC's comment has me scratching me head. Nuclear weapons are a major problem? No! Say it ain't so!

Lots of Americans, or at least lots of people in The Swamp, weren't too keen on RR's dislike of nuclear weapons and MAD. Reagan wanted to end the Cold War. He happened to do so by winning it, but his overriding purpose was to end it. Strange cove, but a giant in his way.

His day now seems so distant - hell, it was perfectly reasonable back then for civilised foreigners to view themselves as pro-American, rather than wonder - as many must, ever since Slick Willie became President - "what are those mad buggers up to now?".

What did Slick Willie ever do to you foreigners? Serbs excepted, of course.

Oddly, Serbs were one of the instances I had in mind. And people associated with that aspirin factory in Sudan, or whatever it was. And the American troops he sent off to die pointlessly in Somalia. And his intention of reversing every cautious, wise decision that Bush the Elder had made about dealing with post-soviet Russia. Or his administration's insouciant massacre of those religious nuts in Waco - what the devil was that about?
And there was also this little matter.

Is your contention that the Serbs didn't have it coming?

Thanks Tyler - a great summary. My suburban Australian family had a couple of his records when I was growing up in the 1960s. I don’t recall how we came by them but his canon has always been part of my family’s shared story. I didn’t know what an old dope pedler was but I always knew that telling a lie was a sin.

A non-conformist by Eisenhower-era standards, appalled to discover that the people on "his side" really do want to burn it all down; retreats into teaching. It's easy enough to see why Tyler feels an affinity.

The other great satirist who had a much wider audience was Stan Freberg. He didn't have the great political sense of humor as Leher but his take on pop culture was immaculate and cutting. His Christmas song is especially appropriate for this season:

Identifying as/with the Intellectual Dark Web is kind of a putz move at this point.

And I know that's how *I* evaluate thinkers--not by whether their ideas lead to new insights or their predictions come true, but rather, by whether they've committed too many putz moves in identifying with the wrong crowd. Truly, you are a thinker for the Trump age.

lol, "the Intellectual dark web" is on it's face not about presenting ideas on their merit.

It's about trying to position people and ideas as outré and cool before you hear the argument, and then to get you to process it all emotionally and on membership terms.

Jordan Peterson made his nut on "they want to take away your pronouns!" That was legally false even in Canada, completely unrelated to American law, but it sure got the juices flowing.

He was such a rebel!

I was in an elevator this weekend, and a guy gets on with his three year old daughter. She covered her eyes to make me disappear. I was thinking it was a long time since I saw this behavior, but I now realize it hasn't been long at all.

Do you just not notice that you are not challenging me and ideas at all?

You're just objecting to my lack of membership.

In fact you are that little girl.

Why would I want to challenge you? Life seems up to the task.

Is that the level of discourse they teach you on the great Intellectual Dark Web?

For what it's worth I am happy to have a conversation about this because I think my ground is so darn solid.

There are a lot of people in this world with ideas and blogs, or podcasts, or YouTube channels. I can love them all while at the same time disdaining this "edgy" attempt by one group to market themselves as a dank meme.

And importantly, it turns out that the action in 2018 was front and center, and not in self-declared "dark corners of the internet."

Most people, the mainstream, had their eyes on the ball.

"Why would I want to challenge you? Life seems up to the task."

Nice one, Cyril.

It's 100% about presenting ideas on their merits. That is the foundation of the IDW and its only reason for existing.

And of course that Peterson descended into "meat only diet" territory just proves my original point.

Perhaps that was the shark jump, the final sell-by date, for the intellectual dark web.

Wishful thinking. By the way, how terrible for someone to have a diet different than your own. Absolutely unacceptable.

I always wonder what those people do for fiber...

Meat and vegetables would be one thing, but meat-only is so far off the natural human experience, and the science of nutrition, it's ridiculous.

"Diets in hunter‐gatherer and other small‐scale societies tend to be less energy dense and richer in fibre and micronutrients than modern diets but are not invariably low carbohydrate as sometimes argued."

There are indeed human societies that live solely on animal products. "The Maasai and their Diet. The Maasai are a pastoralist tribe living in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Their traditional diet consists almost entirely of milk, meat, and blood. Two thirds of their calories come from fat, and they consume 600 - 2000 mg of cholesterol a day"

Are you actually suggesting a fresh blood diet?

Where would a western meat diet get vitamin c?

By the way, this also nicely illustrates the intellectual dark web endpoint, with some nitwit suggesting a meat, blood, and milk diet.

Try to have a little self-respect and self-awareness, people.

By the way, the guy in front of us at Costco had a shopping cart full of meat and one other item .. men's underwear.

He was probably a restauranteur picking up supplies and one other thing he needed, but still it was pretty funny.

Can't believe you overlooked the contributions to Sesame Street!

I was going to mention this too! Except I think it was on "The Electric Company" not "Sesame Street".

Lehrer was and continues to be underrated.

I was at a football game where the Harvard band played "Fight Fiercely Harvard" but their playing and vocals were so weak that at first I couldn't understand them. My friend though, a Harvard alum and Lehrer fan, did say "I think they're playing Fight Fiercely Harvard".

USC's band loves to play Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk". Partly because they were part of the original recording, but mainly because they changed the lyrics of the chorus so they and all students who are present can chant "U C L A sucks". In later years though I never saw them play Tusk; I suspect that the USC administration told them to stop playing it.

The Univ of Washington's marching band's unofficial favorite was "Tequila", which they would finish by taking off their clothes (but still wearing underwear). Another favorite of the students.

Just about every American university has not just an alma mater song but also a fight song. I suspect most have an unofficial favorite such as Tusk and Tequila but I don't go to many football games so I don't know what other songs are out there.

Portland State University's teams are called the Vikings; during football games they'll play a recording of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" but seemingly only once. I'm guessing that Portland State can't afford to pay license fees for more than that. It's a doormat team in a doormat conference.

Unless I was imagining and/or dreaming it, I once saw, on TV, the Stanford marching band play both Devo's "Mongoloid" and Zappa's "Echidna's Arf (Of You)."

I've only been to two football games that Stanford played in and their marching band didn't do anything memorable (except the Tree is rather freaky). But from what I've read, that may've been the exception rather than the rule; what you saw on TV is more along the lines of what I've read about their performances -- when they're not getting in the middle of The Play.

He contributed to Electric Company. I've played many of his songs for my kids, including the -LY and silent E songs....

Lehrer was my grand unlce's camp counselor --- probably back when Lehrer was in high school or college. Apparently after hearing my uncle sing, Lehrer told him not to make a career of it...

I have an autograph Tom Lehrer signed for a nigthclub owner after a show in 1957.

Lehrer included Euler's Homogeneous function theorem along with his signature.

Here is photo and a Reddit thread speculating about the tongue in cheek meaning of Lehrer including the equation.

We never really got to the *why* of it.

Anyone here have an interpretation?

He was the hero of the nerds of my generation (the early 1940's)

When I discovered Tom Lehrer and the fact that he taught at UC Santa Cruz, I wished I had gone there for college.

Lehrer's song "The Old Dope Peddler" is sampled in rapper 2 Chainz's song "Dope Peddler", on his 2012 debut album... Lehrer said he was "very proud" to have his song sampled "literally sixty years after I recorded it". Lehrer went on to describe his official response to the request to use his song: "As sole copyright owner of 'The Old Dope Peddler', I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this. Please give my regards to Mr. Chainz, or may I call him 2?"

Heh! If he'd really wanted to, I think Tom Lehrer could've kept composing relevant songs through today.

I first heard him when my 6th grade teachers taught us to sing his song "Pollution":

If you visit American city
You will find it very pretty
Just two things of which you must beware
Don't drink the water and don't breathe the air!

Awesome! we practically wore his records out listening to them as kids. My friend swears his stereo blew up because "god was not pleased" as we blared Lehrer's The Vatican Rag out the window to the neighborhood on a hot Saturday afternoon

I think the "Big Bang Theory" would speak against point 5.

My parents forbade me to listen to his first album (a 10" LP) so it was, of course, the first thing on the hi-fi as soon as they walked out of the house.

Per the element song, it's not bad, but I think this is a better version of the same sort of song. Less pretentious. I'd bet Lehrer was sort of cribbing the idea from this song, if not this version, too.

A very nice video to "I've been Everywhere." For Pete's sake.

According to wikipedia, the original version of that song was published in Australia in 1959, the same year that "The Elements" came out, so unless Lehrer was up to date on Australian popular music I doubt that he was inspired by that song.

It should go without saying that his main inspiration for the song was the Gilbert and Sullivan song whose melody he used: "I Am the Very Model of a Major General".

Wikipedia notes another obvious antecedent that I had not heard of before: Ira Gershwin's "Tchaikosky and Other Russians".

Oops, this was supposed to be a reply to j mct's comment about Johnny Cash's performance of "I've Been Everywhere Man".

I looked it up and..... you're absolutely right, I remembered it wrong, I thought that Hank Snow guy was from the 40's. I still like it better though, no offense to Lehrer, his song is OK too, and cribbing G&S is a good thing I'd say, not a bad one.

1. I don't think his target was political correctness per se, so much as insincere political correctness. Comparing him to current day IDW is bizarre as they're exactly the sort of "bigotry hidden behind a mask of pleasantness" he was specifically targeting.

7. "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" wasn't morbid humor purely for shock value, it was criticizing a specific program in Boston to control the pigeon population in city parks by feeding them strychnine-laced corn.

I first started listening to Tom Lehrer when I was in sixth grade (I'm 70 now). His work can, like Beethoven's, be divided into three periods: the early stuff (the gory, misanthropic and devastatingly funny ones like "My Home Town," the Irish ballad, and "I Hold Your Hand in Mine") that is mostly satire of popular music genres; the stuff he wrote for That Was the Week That Was, which contains most of his social and political commentary work (e.g. "Vatican Rag"--which frankly isn't all that pungent), and his more anodyne but clever work for The Electric Company. The last thing he wrote, if I remember correctly, was commissioned by Garrison Keillor for Prairie Home Companion, his "Hanukah carol" ("I'm Spending Hanukah in Santa Monica").

I met him at a party in the Boston area 10 or more years ago and had a lovely chat. Sadly, he wears hearing aids in both ears, but he perked up and was appreciative that when I got his "collected works" recordings for my kids I bought the actual CDs and didn't download them (this was pre-iTunes), so he got the full royalties.

mkt42 is spot on in referring to his love of G&S (to which I'd add Ira Gershwin, another very classy writer of lyrics) and especially their use of split-line ("Turn on the spigot/Pour the beer and swig it/And gaudeamus igit/tur") and internal rhymes, best illustrated in the patter-song segment of his variations on "My Darling Clementine":

"That I missed her depressed her
Young sister named Esther--
To pester this mister she'd try.
'Now a pestering sister's a festering blister,
It's best to resist her' Said I"

If he's reading this I wish him a happy birthday and many more to come.

Re #10, when I was growing up, I never understood why, among all the comical original songs, he randomly sang a traditional Irish ballad.

Excellent post.

Lehrer is a rare example of somebody who was a fairly sizable entertainment industry celebrity for a while, but then got a real job. Almost everybody else who gets mildly famous like him stays in show biz, even when they are over the hill, or gradually shifts into a self-employed business like real estate development.

And because Lehrer's fan base was so highbrow, he probably could have made a solid living for decades doing high end corporate gigs like Ivy League fundraisers.

But, instead, he wanted to teach math.

>he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.

Just because Obama was willing to help the Mullahs get the bomb does not mean that "our time" was stupid regarding nuclear proliferation. Get a hold of yourself.

Now we foment war with Russia and China and the voters, oblivious to the fact that the villains the politicians manufacture have nuclear weapons, sit silently without protest.

When attending UC Santa Cruz 1970-74, Lehrer was high up a redwood crowned hill teaching mathematics. He had a strict rule that no one who took his classes did so for the off chance of getting a song out of him, or a wisecrack; he was serious. And he punished those who wandered in on the assumption that this was a vaudeville revue course. Once a year, though, he might give a small end of lecture performance, unannounced.

Since I was terrible at numbers (thanks to California's uniform introduction of "modern math" in 4th grade without any warning to terrified teachers), I never dared sit in. Many other sci major friends did. The thing is, only one or two even cared about the songs--which I learned mostly by heart as they came out, each a response to a moment in those crazy times. Herman Kahn, I learned thee by Lehrer's knee!

One minor correction. It would have made sense for Tom Lehrer to have done mathematics at NSA, but he was a draftee in the Army (Army Security Agency) which has its own brand of logic. They made him a Russian linguist instead.

"...genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!"

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