Two for Tuesday: Tom Lehrer

The summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school (1972), I was smoking a lot and drinking Dr Pepper by the six-pack, and would stay up until all hours listening to the radio in my room. I discovered an overnight talk show on WDAI hosted by a local comedian named Wayne Juhlin. His show went from midnight until six AM, and, as was the style in those days, it was pretty freeform. There were some interviews with guests, either serious ones or one of an odd assortment of characters (e.g. Herschel Hollywood, a campy entertainment critic); lots of anti-drug PSA’s and commercials for albums, concerts, head shops, and other products and businesses that appealed to the crowd that was listening; and comedy records. There were a few familiar names (George Carlin, Bob Newhart) and many that I had never heard before. One of my favorites was Tom Lehrer.

Tom was a songwriter, satirist, and math professor (University of California Santa Cruz) who became popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s for the humorous songs he would write and perform. Most of the time, he parodied popular song styles, though occasionally, he would take an existing melody and set words to it. A classic example of this is his song “The Elements”, where he set the names of the chemical elements to “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

Tom’s career as a parodist reached its high point when he was asked to be a permanent member of the cast of the US version of the TV show That Was The Week That Was. The popularity of those songs, while making reference to social and political events of that time, have remained popular to this day. Yeah, they were that good.

Tom retired from live performances in the early 1970’s to return to the university and dedicate his time to teaching math and music theater full-time, but his music carries on, as evidenced by the continued popularity of his albums (now digitized) and his videos on YouTube. Here are a couple of my favorites, and believe me, it wasn’t easy to choose.

This was the first Tom Lehrer song I heard, and I laughed so hard that I woke my mother and was told to go to bed. Given my Catholic upbringing and education to that point, you can see why I found it so funny. Here is “The Vatican Rag.”

One of the many fads in education I was subjected to in grammar school was the infamous “New Math.” Tom explains New Math in the following song of the same name.

As I said, there is a veritable plethora of Tom’s music available on YouTube and in digital format, sounding just as good as when it was first recorded. . I hope you’ve enjoyed Tom Lehrer, your Two for Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

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