Of all the popular musicians the industry has produced, it's hard to think of a more likely one than Tom Lehrer. The bespectacled Lehrer looks more like a math teacher than a rock star, for good reason. Lehrer's primary job for years was as a mathematics teacher at colleges like MIT and UC Santa Cruz. But for a decade in the mid-'50s and '60s, Lehrer was one of the most celebrated musical satirists, aiming his dark and cynical humor at popular musical styles, politics, and academia. He has cited by the likes of Randy Newman, Weird Al Yankovic, and comedy song DJ Dr. Demento as a major influence. While some of his songs have become dated in the decades since whatever political or social controversy he was satirizing has passed, these ten have remained timeless reminders of why he is considered one of America's best musical comics.
Folk music was a regular target of Lehrer's satirical wit. Originally, he poked fun at the earnestness of traditional folk singers. But by the time his 1965 release That Was the Year That Was came out, the folk revival made folk rock into a political force and Lehrer had a new target; anti-war folk rockers. In concert, Lehrer would regularly deadpan that he admired the folk singers of this era because “it takes courage to stand up in a coffee house or auditorium and be in favor of the things everyone else is against like peace and justice.”
Arguably Tom Lehrer's best known song due to repeated spins on Dr. Demento, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” is indicative of much of Lehrer's early output. Released on his 1959 album More of Tom Lehrer, the song lampoons upbeat “return of spring” songs with a jaunty waltz about the joys of killing pigeons.
Considering his background in education, it's perhaps not surprising that Lehrer eventually turned to educational songs. What is surprising is that he was able to tone down his acid wit enough to make songs that would work for kids. But he did, writing songs for the popular PBS show The Electric Company. While his songs may not have been as caustic as his satirical output, they did differ from many children's songs as they were witty, relied on smart wordplay, and never talked down to the kids. “Silent E” is the best example, showing how a silent e can magically transform one object into another except in the case of his friend Sam, “who was just the same.”
“The Hunting Song” is another of Lehrer's songs that has enjoyed ongoing popularity due to its timeless nature and is often used by animal rights and anti-hunting activists. The story of a deer hunter who bagged “two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow” did receive a brief burst of popularity in 2006 following Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a friend while on a hunting trip.
Even more than lampooning political and social trends, Lehrer reveled in poking fun at musical tropes. The most remembered example of this is “Masochism Tango.” Performed on the piano as a traditional tango, the increasingly ridiculous situations that two masochistic dancers get themselves into (“you caught my nose in your left castanet love”) make for a hilarious song that is another Dr. Demento favorite.
“Clementine” gave Tom Lehrer the chance to poke fun at two of his favorite subjects, folk songs and musical conventions. A concert favorite during his brief time as a touring musician, Lehrer insists that “Oh My Darling, Clementine's” lack of redeeming social value is due to it being written “by the people”, so re-imagines it as written by Rodgers & Hammerstein, a Beethoven aria, and even a musical number by Gilbert & Sullivan. Each example is more hilarious than the other and shows off Lehrer's impressive talent with the piano.
While National Brotherhood Week isn't much celebrated anymore, the concept of having designated days to be nice to people not like you has continued with other holidays and celebrations. Of course, this kind of contrived niceness was low hanging fruit for a satirical wit like Lehrer. His song lists all of the racial and ethnic groups who hate each other week (including the Jewish Lehrer's lamentation that “everybody hates the Jews!”) but insisting that all of the niceness should not bring sadness to bigots as they have 51 other weeks to hate and mistreat minorities.
Sometimes Tom Lehrer's satires are so spot-on that even the subjects of the lampooning love them. One example is “The Irish Ballad”. Taking the traditional Irish murder ballad to absurdist extremes and ending with the zinger “her murders she did not deny. For to do so she would have had to lie, and lying she knew was a sin”, it's a song that is regularly heard at Renaissance Festivals and Celtic music gatherings, embraced by the community as a gentle poke at their traditions.
As a mathematician, it's no surprise that Lehrer's satire often touched on the topics of education. The song that has remained the most popular is “New Math.” Detailing the increasingly difficult way schools were teaching math at the time because, as Lehrer deadpans “knowing what you're doing is more important than getting the right answer.” The song had a brief but major revival over 50 years after its publication as it became a common social media share among those opposed to Common Core educational standards.
Some of Tom Lehrer's songs have managed to remain culturally relevant despite their age. Others seem to have only grown more so in the years that have passed. One such song is the Tom Lehrer song that is the most played of his offerings, being trotted out on all-Christmas radio stations every December as a much needed antidote to the fawning and upbeat Christmas songs everyone else puts out. Lehrer's reimagining of classics like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to include what he calls “the true spirit of the season... money” will resonate with anyone sitting in a choked traffic jam waiting to get to the mall for that last minute gift.