Tom Lehrer: Satirical Music of the 1950s and 1960s

Music today is abundant.  You can find hundreds of songs in all types of category and genre.  However, that wasn’t the case in the 1950s.  Types of music that were deemed socially unacceptable were scarce.  One of these types was satirical music.  With investors shying away from investing in these types of song, only a handful of songs were able to become recorded and made publically available.  And since many stations were unwilling to broadcast such offensive songs, the only way for them to spread was through word of mouth.  That was the case for artists such as Tom Lehrer.  But despite these challenges, Tom was able to capture his audience with his unique witty and humorous songs and become one of the most well-known musical comedy satirist in the twentieth century.

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Born in 1928, Tom Lehrer began playing the piano at the age of seven. He was taught how to play both classical and popular piano music.  This training gave Tom the skill to eventually craft the melodic tunes that will accompany his satirical lyrics.  While attending Harvard University for a B.S. in mathematics, Tom began writing songs by drawing inspiration from the styles and lyrics of the popular music of the day.  Tom also began performing around the Cambridge community such as “dance intermissions and smokers and things like that.” After a few years performing, Tom recorded his first record in 1953 (Songs by Tom Lehrer) and sold them around the community.  Since radio stations at the time wouldn’t play his satirical songs, Tom had to rely on word of mouth to spread his songs.  After months of local sales, Tom was receiving orders from around the country as friends, students, and local fans brought the record home and shared it with their friends.  And during this period, Tom finished a B.S. and M.S. in mathematics.  However, soon Tom had to stop performing because he was drafted into the Army where he spent the next two years in service.  After being honorably discharged from the Army in 1957, Tom continued performing and released another record in 1959 (More of Tom Lehrer / An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer).  Tom soon realized that he much preferred teaching than performing as a career.  Therefore, in 1965 he released his last record of new songs (That Was the Year That Was).  Afterwards, Tom performed only occasionally until he officially retired from performing in 1973.  Tom went back to concentrating on teaching subjects such as math, political science, and musical theater at Harvard, MIT, and UCSC.

Many people wondered if Tom’s goal was to influence people politically and socially because many of his songs were about current political, social, and environmental events.  However, that wasn’t Tom’s intention.  Tom only wanted to bring humor to his audience by laughing at those topics such as current events because “comedy is very important… it keeps you sane.” Although it wasn’t Tom’s intention to influence his audience, Tom did have an impact.  Tom’s music helped people who are of the same opinion “realize it’s okay to laugh.  They’re not the only ones.”Tom’s music also impacted people who held differing opinions because they “hear that a lot of other people are laughing at something you thought was not funny… it’ll force you to reconsider.”

Here’s Tom Lehrer singing “The Vatican Rag”(1965).  This song lightly mocks the Roman Catholic Church and gives a suggestion on how to draw in more members.

Here’s Tom Lehrer singing “Send the Marines,”(1965) which is still applicable today.  This song describes how the United States uses their military might to force other countries to comply.

Here’s Tom Lehrer singing “When You Are Old and Gray”(1953).  This song is Tom’s version of a “realistic” love song.

-Lily Li

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