Editorial September 2005 Tom Lehrer - Whatever Happened? by Hilary Williamson
I grew up with Tom Lehrer's satirical songs as bedtime music - my parents played his records often, and I fell asleep listening to them. So when my teen sons discovered a box of dusty LPs this summer, I was intrigued to see their reactions. That Was the Year that Was was an instant, huge hit with my kids, while I was surprised to find how topical songs like Pollution, We Will All Go Together When We Go, Who's Next?, and Send the Marines still are. I googled, expecting a selection of books on Lehrer's life and work, and was surprised at how little I found.
There's a Wikipedia bio, a 2000 A. V. Club interview by Stephen Thompson, and plenty of fan websites, with lyrics and album covers. One even provides a flash animation of The Elements (Lehrer's musical rendition of the periodic table). And the songs are now available in CD versions. Worried that my family's enthusiasm would wear out the records, I quickly acquired a box set, The Remains of Tom Lehrer. It includes a CD size booklet with a brief bio that opens, 'Tom Lehrer is the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded'. All the lyrics are in there, along with a reproduction of two hilarious songs in graphic format, from Mad Magazine - The Hunting Song and The Wild West is Where I Want To Be.
Lehrer was born in 1928 in New York City. He graduated at eighteen from Harvard, where he wrote, and performed, his songs while studying mathematics. He released his first LP, Songs by Tom Lehrer, in 1953, followed by More of Tom Lehrer in 1959. He was never a full-time entertainer, though he toured in England, Australia, New Zealand, and later in Scandinavia. In the 60s, while teaching math at MIT, he wrote songs for the TV show That Was the Week That Was, and released That Was the Year That Was in 1965. In the 70s, while teaching in Santa Cruz, California, he wrote songs (on reading and math) for the children's TV show, The Electric Company. A London show, Tomfoolery, was produced in 1980 by Cameron Mackintosh (famed for Cats).
Tom Lehrer is now in his 70s. Of his impact he says in a 2003 Australian interview, Stop clapping, this is serious by Tony Davis, that he was 'not even preaching to the converted, I was titillating the converted', but I think he's understating his impact. Given my sons' reactions, his messages still hit home. I was recently struck by Jason A. Merchey's comment on education in Building a Life of Value - 'Instead of teaching children simply to tow the line, let's teach them to think critically, to act independently, and to challenge authority wisely.' Lehrer wrote and sang his best songs in the 60s, when critical thinking seemed more in vogue, and emphasized in educational institutions. If it is today, I don't see the results.
I'm glad to know my childhood hero is still alive and kicking in California, and that reports of lawsuits, insanity, and his demise were early urban myths. But where are his successors? (The closest I can think of is Terry Pratchett, whose satirical commentary is delivered through his brilliant Discworld novels). I miss Tom Lehrer's articulate, acidic wit. Introducing one of his songs, Lehrer says, 'I feel that if a person has problems communicating the very least he can do is to shut up.' I wish he hadn't.
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