Okay boomers—listen up!
Steve Kelman remembers the savage beats of the great Tom Lehrer.
People such as myself who spend too much time on Facebook (NB: I am over 60, I am not even on Instagram or TikTok) often come across random things that the algorithm has put on my feed. Recently I actually saw a link to a song, The Vatican Rag, by Tom Lehrer.
Many readers who meet my over-60 screen will have heard of Tom Lehrer. Lehrer had a life as a math professor at MIT. In the 1950s he started singing in Cambridge coffee houses a succession of often tasteless songs such as Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and The Masochism Tango. I somehow heard of Lehrer's album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, after it came out in 1959.
In the sixties of the Vietnam protest era, Lehrer moved to songs with more of a political content. (Indeed, FCW gave its OK to my writing here about Lehrer only because his songs became political, which comes closer to FCW's thing.) He appeared on national television in the 1960s satire show, "That Was the Week that Was" (aka TW3), where he sang songs such as Pollution and The Folk Song Army ("guitars are the weapons we bring to the fight against poverty, war and injustice. Ready, aim, sing!"), and a song about Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who after World War II landed at NASA in Huntsville.
His political songs appeared in an album called That Was the Year that Was. There was an untrue rumor at the time, which some alleged Lehrer himself had originated, that von Braun sued him for defamation for the song's last line, "In German, in English I know how to count down. Und I'm learning Chinese says Wernher von Braun."
Lehrer was an absolute master of the clever rhyme. The Vatican rag song featured the lines "do whatever steps you want if/you have cleared it with the Pontiff" and "Get in line in that processional/step into that small confessional/there the guy who's got religion'll/Tell you if your sin's original."
When I posted a link to the Vatican Rag on my Facebook page, it received a surprisingly large number of comments, suggesting that many, around my generation at least, remembered him, including from Stan Soloway, a senior DOD official in the 1990s. What impelled me to write this commentary was realizing that Tom Lehrer has basically disappeared without a trace from our culture (even upper-middle-class college culture), though many of his songs have actually aged quite well.
I am guessing that more young people have heard of the folk band Peter Paul and Mary. Stan wrote me that when he sings Lehrer songs in the car, his daughters react with "bewilderment." (Stan also suggested I find out if any younger readers have ever heard of Lena Horne or Sheriff Clark, who feature in Lehrer's song National Brotherhood Week on the TW3 album—emails to me with answers welcomed!)
Lehrer, it turns out, is still alive—94 years old and living in Cambridge, Mass.
Older readers, take this as a suggestion to listen to his songs again. Younger readers, take this as a suggestion to discover him.