I first heard Tom Lehrer’s music in high school. Without my parents’ knowledge, I used to stay up past my bedtime on Sunday nights to listen to The Doctor Demento Show on the radio. It was (and is, as it continues online), a program of novelty and comedy records. The good Doctor held up Tom Lehrer as one of the true greats of musical satire, which, I can see now, he was. Or is, as he is still alive at 90-something.
This is the first Tom Lehrer song I remember Dr. Demento playing. It spoke to me as a child of the Cold War. If you weren’t alive then, let me impress upon you just how tightly woven it was into the fabric of our lives. We feared that the USSR would one day just start firing nuclear missiles at us, sparking World War III and the utter destruction of the Earth. We sometimes speculated over which cities would be first targets, and based on how close or far we lived from them what kind of hideous death we would suffer, from instant vaporization to acute radiation poisoning or anything in between. Anyway. Here’s Tom helping us all process and release our nuclear anxieties.
Dr. Demento played many of Tom’s other songs. We learned from the good Doctor that Tom recorded two or three versions of many of his songs: a studio recording of just Tom at his piano, a live recording, and a studio recording with a full orchestra. This song about, well, BDSM, benefits in particular from the orchestra.
What endeared me most to Tom Lehrer, however, was his songs about mathematics and science. Music was just one of his talents and interests. He was quite adept at mathematics — he entered Harvard to study it at age 15! He taught mathematics in universities throughout his working life. Here, he sings about a change in the way arithmetic was taught in schools starting in the 1960s.
He also sang the entire Periodic Table of the Elements to the tune of I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General. I was a deeply geeky teenager whose sense of humor connected with nobody I encountered in real life. It was a revelation and a relief to find that others thought that nerdy things could be made funny!
Tom Lehrer’s musical career, if you can call it that, intertwined with his adademic pursuits. He alternated between writing, recording, and performing songs and pursuing degrees and teaching. He released his first record in 1950, his second in 1959, and his third in 1965. He toured the world; he appeared frequently on television. And then he lost interest in it all, and retreated to academia, where he stayed.
Except that in the 1970s he contributed songs to a children’s show called The Electric Company, which aired on PBS. This show’s aim was to help early elementary students learn to read. I watched this show when it was new — I was a little older than its target audience, but in those days we had but a handful of TV stations with few children’s programming options. I remember these songs well, but didn’t learn that Tom Lehrer was behind them until I was well into adulthood. I knew Tom Lehrer before I was aware of it! Some of his songs were performed by the show’s actors, but Tom sang a few himself to an animation, like this one.
The reason I’m writing about this today is that Lehrer has released all of his lyrics into the public domain, and is said to be working to release his music into the public domain as well. He is aware of his music being uploaded to YouTube, and he is on record as not caring. So let’s listen to just one more of his songs, a perennial favorite he performs here live in 1998, which I have to assume is among his last public performances. No less than Stephen Sondheim introduces him.
If you’d like to know more about Tom Lehrer, Buzzfeed published a great retrospective and interview a few years ago. Read it here.