More than 40 years ago, well after he had largely left the music scene, the songs by Tom Lehrer ’43 were described this way: “Some call Lehrer’s songs topical or satirical. Others call them sick. Few call them subtle.”
Tom is a musician, singer-songwriter, satirist, mathematician, and professor whose irreverent 20-year music career mostly ended by the early ’70s, his choice.
That 1981 Newsday article describing his music strikes a chord. It’s safe to say his songs were anything but mainstream. And even safer that Tom probably didn’t care whether you liked his work or not, he had things he wanted to say, and people needed to hear. You were not going to find his work on the Top 40 stations. He would parody musical forms and lampoon anything that struck him as needing a jab.
Tom will be 95 on April 9. He largely left the music scene 50 years ago to teach mathematics and musical theater history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. By that time, he felt he had said his piece to the world. He taught at UC Santa Cruz from 1972 to 2001. He also taught at Harvard and MIT.
Tom announced in November of 2022 that he was putting all recording and performing rights of his lyrics and music in the public domain. Those lyrics make for interesting reading.
Former Loomis Chaffee English faculty member Tom Knapp used some of Lehrer’s music while teaching the senior English elective course Satire. Tom taught here from 1975 to 2015.
“In the beginning of the course, when you are trying to project what satire is all about, it is great to have dozens of examples,” Tom said. “His songs were a good introduction because some were not contemporarily known to the students. My approach for teaching satire was that it is not just humor. You must know the subject to understand what he’s playing on. Once they knew the background, they would understand the satire of the song.”
Telling his students of the Loomis connection sparked interest and got their attention too. “I also thought they would find it fun. Sometimes you need something a little jazzy.”
After graduating from Loomis 80 years ago, Tom Lehrer attended Harvard at age 15. In 1946 he received a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics, graduating magna cum laude.
He wrote the satirical fight song, Fight Fiercely, Harvard, in 1945 to amuse his fellow students, yet it is still played by the Harvard University band and was on their 75th anniversary album in 1995.
He was a songwriter for the ’60s news satire show That Was the Week That Was. His songs were played regularly on Dr. Demento, a radio show in ’70s. He wrote some songs for the children’s TV program, The Electric Company, in the early ’70s.
“Lehrer is not a recluse,” wrote Todd S. Pudham in the New York Times in 2000, “though he resists all publicity unless he has something to sell, refuses television interviews (because he’s might be asked to perform and then might be recognized in airports), and acknowledges having encouraged rumors that he was dead, in the vain hope of cutting down on his junk mail.”
Jeremy Bernstein, who was at Harvard at the time Lehrer was, recalled in his book Quantum Profiles, “I met a physicist from Santa Cruz and asked him if he ever met Lehrer. He said that although he did not know much about him, they shared an office. When I explained who Lehrer was, he was genuinely surprised.”
At Loomis, Tom was the co-winner of the Mrs. Thomas Warham Loomis Memorial Prize for highest scholarship in the senior class at the June 12, 1943, Commencement. He was in the Glee Club, Music Club, and in the cast of Dead End and The Pirates of Penzance, which would come into play later in his life. In 1959, he wrote the song The Elements in which he set the names of all the chemical elements known at the time to the tune of Major-General's Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
He also was known for social and political satire. His 1960 song, Pollution, starts with:
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!
That was 63 years ago and he was writing songs about pollution. A man ahead of his time.
Tom had an easy-going way of sitting at the piano and presenting his work with a spoken word introduction and then launching into song, his inflection making you feel the words. His songs made you think … and laugh … maybe even cry if you thought too much about some of them.
Nothing was sacred for Tom, who also wrote “The Vatican Rag,” which spoofed Vatican II, a series of sessions from 1962 to 1965 that would modernize the Catholic Church. His song, Wernher von Braun, was about the man who was a leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Nazi Germany and later a leader of rocket and space technology in the United States.
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" say Wernher von Braun
Lehrer’s debut album in 1953 was Songs by Tom Lehrer. Recorded for $15 in one hour, the story goes, Lehrer was issued 400 copies that he sold around Harvard for $3.50 each. Eventually, Bernstein wrote, the record sold 350,000 copies and was distributed by RCA.
His album, That Was The Year That Was, contained performances of songs originally written for the TV show and peaked at No. 18 on Billboard’s top 200 album chart. It was on the chart for 51 weeks.
“Lehrer is a man who had his moment, enjoyed it, banked his royalties and moved on,” the 1981 Newsday article said.
One can only imagine the songs he’d be writing today if he were so inclined.