Tom Lehrer

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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 (in a joking reference to a leading scientific journal) 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 (à la Danny Kaye's "Tchaikovsky") 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 the US edition of That Was The Week That Was (TW3), 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 satirized the alleged amorality of Wernher von Braun. A selection of these songs was released in the album That Was The Year That Was.

Departure from the scene

Image:Lehrer book.JPG 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 asserts that he had stopped doing satire several years earlier.

When asked about his reasons for abandoning his musical career, he cited a simple lack of interest, a distaste for touring, and boredom with performing the same songs repeatedly. It has been frequently observed that, though many of Lehrer's songs satirized the Cold War political establishment of the day, that he stopped writing and performing just as the 1960s counterculture movement gained momentum. Lehrer has stated that he doubts his songs had an impact on those not already critical of the establishment: "I don't think this kind of thing has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It's not even preaching to the converted; it's titillating the converted... I'm fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the '30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War."Template:Ref

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, Tom Foolery, 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 small hardbound book 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. However, he never completed his doctoral studies, and never received 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 legacy

Lehrer was praised by Dr. Demento as "the best musical satirist of the 20th Century."

When asked by an Australian newspaper about his silence since the 1960s and his legacy now, he commented that his particular brand of political satire is more difficult in the modern world. "The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban landmines... I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them."Template:Ref

A play, called Letters From Lehrer, has been written by Canadian Richard Greenblatt, and performed by him at CanStage, from January 16 to February 25, 2006. It follows Lehrer's musical career, the meaning of several songs, the politics of the time, and Greenblatt's own experiences with Lehrer's music, while playing some of Lehrer's songs. There are currently no plans for more performances, although low-quality audio recordings have begun to circulate around the net.


  • Claims to have invented the Jello shot during his stint in the US Army as a means of circumventing liquor restrictions on army bases.
  • Popularized the ironic use of the phrase 'copious free time', which occurs in the introduction to "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier".

Reviews selected by Lehrer for his liner notes


Image:An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer.jpg

Many Lehrer songs are also performed (but not by Lehrer) in That Was "That Was The Week That Was" (1981).


  1. Template:Note Interview with the Onion AV Club, May 24 2000 (contains comments on Kissinger story)
  2. Template:Note Interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, February 28 2003

External links


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