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Tom Lehrer; the reluctant performer

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tom lehrer
Timeline;  1968 

As a still-wet-behind-the-ears new recruit for my first job in the (then) Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG)  I’d been sent as far away from modern civilisation as the long pointer-stick held by The Boss Man could reach on his expansive wall map at Headquarters in Konedobu, Port Moresby.

Miliom, in the West Sepik District.
There was only one other expatriate, a teacher from New Zealand. In the absence of electricity, television or roads to the outside world our weekend entertainment was provided by regular earthquakes, the occasional bottle of South Pacific Lager, a superb Grundig short-wave radio and a brand spanking new state-of-the-art Akai reel-to-reel tape deck.  We had only three music tapes to play on it;  Eartha Kitt, Roger Miller and Tom Lehrer.

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Back to 2014;

From the very first day I started blogging six years ago I acknowledged the part Tom Lehrer had played in the way I came to view the world.  You can blame him (at least partially) for the way I turned out.
The 20th century’s finest satirical lyricist said;  “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends upon what you put into it” and as an enduring tribute to the man, this has remained my online signature ever since.

Lehrer opened my youthful eyes with his wit and humour to some of the ugly realities of our time which were being conveniently hidden behind smokescreens of political rhetoric and middle-class indifference.

Born in Manhattan in 1928, Lehrer went to Harvard at age fifteen and graduated at eighteen.  Academic life always came first. Music second.
His career included teaching mathematics, geometry and political science at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California until he was well into his seventies, in addition to a brief period when he was drafted into the army where he worked in the cryptographic branch of the Defense Department.
He was a reluctant part-time entertainer, retiring at age 31.  He performed only 119 concerts, 33 of which were in Australia and New Zealand.  His repertoire included pieces with some exquisite use of language.  “I pride myself on being literate to the point of  pretentiousness” said Tom Lehrer, the accidental celebrity who briefly shared the stage with some big acts of his time such as Johnny Mathis, Odetta and The Kingston Trio.

My appreciation of Tom Lehrer goes far beyond his music.  I admire the intellect, perspicacity and extraordinary social conscience that he possessed as a young man in his mid twenties when he wrote most of the songs. Many of the messages contained within them remain relevant today, sixty years later.

Most of all I admire the courage it took to shine a light on so many of the contentious issues of his time such as warfare, drugs, pornography (he was in favour of it), censorship, racism, and pollution.  Mendacious politicians and a few pious clergy must surely have considered Lehrer to be an irritating termite chomping away at the foundations of their comfortable castles of conservatism.

Tom Lehrer paved the way for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and all the other folk and rock activists who were to follow in his footsteps a decade later.

Mr Lehrer is now 85 years old and I have chosen the following soundtrack which typically treats 1950’s Government propaganda with the contempt it deserved .
Here is his musical deliberation on nuclear testing in the American desert.

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About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

27 responses »

  1. Fabulous chap. He made it cool to object to Government. Up till then long haired Greenies were the only ones I noticed protesting and their skeleton suits were a big turn off for intellectual objections.

    I remember going to an anti nuclear protest with a bunch of older folk. Mostly farmers up Albury way. We ended up going home as did the others who weren’t part of their group. I often wonder how different the world would be if anti-groups were more inclusive.

    • Good point Peter. It was strange that I needed to travel to the ends of the earth to discover Lehrer. As ag college boarding students in the early sixties we were quite politically naive and largely unaware of social injustices….at least I was… perhaps other students had a more finely tuned social conscience.

      • I think a lot of effort was expended to keep us compliant in those days. I didn’t even protest about Conscription even though I would have been in the draw. Happily Gough Whitlam saved me.

  2. Very interesting! I really had no knowledge of Tom Lehrer until I saw your quote here. I’ll have to read some more about him!

  3. I’m afraid I too know little of Tom Lehrer. I can see I need to rectify that. Thanks for a most enlightening post, GOF.

  4. My father was a huge Tom Lehrer fan. Not sure if we had any tapes of him on the old reel to reel but we certainly had records. I sang along to many in the 60’s like Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, The Irish Ballad & Hold your Hand in Mine which I thought were hysterically funny & which were probably not terribly appropriate for a < 10 year old! 🙂 In high school I learnt the periodic table to Tom's song and it's probably the only sciencey thing I still remember.

    • It’s nice that I’m preaching to at least one converted Lehrer fan Emjay. I still get a huge laugh out of his most politically incorrect songs….especially Poisoning Pigeons and I Hold Your hand in Mine. I’m sure his periodic table song helped many science students, but I could never get my head around his New Math explanation…..which is to be expected considering I managed 19% in that subject during my Form 4 exams

  5. Thank you, GOF.
    I’ve been reading your posts for a number of years now; enjoying your observations/rants on human folly, frailty and foolishness – all that is fondly known as civilisation.
    Once more, as I again come away the richer for it (this time for introducing me to Tom Lehrer), must I aknowledge my debt to Andrea Petkovic, and our shared admiration of her.

    • Thank you Martin for taking the time to comment… is wonderful to know that you are out there and occasionally getting some enjoyment from my deliberations on life. Additionally, your enduring interest in Andrea convinces me that you are a perceptive intelligent man of impeccable taste. A pleasure to have you in The Bucket.

  6. Very interesting to learn about. He’s someone who’s remained largely off my radar. I’ve chuckled at your signature quote a number of times, but have never quite got around to Googling its author to find out more. I’ll have to make a point of doing so now, he certainly sounds like my kind of guy. 🙂

    • It is quite astonishing how relevant many of Lehrer’s songs remain today Lance. Most of his songs are on Youtube and I’m sure you will appreciate his dry sense of humour.

  7. You’re the first person I recall seeing quote Lehrer. His music wasn’t a part of my childhood (dad listened largely to what was called hard rock back then and also bossa nova while mum listened to opera and Elvis — most importantly, Gram listened to MoTown). I missed out on most of the current music and while Lehrer wasn’t doing this during my childhood, many my age talk about him, so he must’ve been on TV or their parents has tapes/ records…

    Therefore: you’re the first person I recall talking about him because you introduced me to him (thank you). He was around the whole time but not in a way that sifted him to the top of my conscience.

    • That’s a real mixture of music you grew up with Lily……all music is a gift for children. I suspect Lehrer had what today would be known as a ‘cult following’ and it was only through a coincidence of life that I discovered his work. He’s not to everyone’s taste……I just happen to appreciate satire and biting sarcasm, so he’s my sorta dude.

      • Of course, I didn’t mention that my extended family all played what is now referred to as Bluegrass…That’s a big part of who I am and I think why I *do* like folk music (which I think Lehrer’s certainly applies to, being politically and socially-themed).

        I saw the piano-playing, political satirist Mark Russell on tv as a kid. My parents loved him. I almost saw him more as a comedian with a piano.

  8. One of my heroes, from childhood on.
    And I passed it on too – Sair’s growing brain was pickled in the stuff.
    Ah, the classics….

    • Passing Lehrer’s gift of independent thought on to the next generation is a very good thing…..I grew up being waaay to accepting of everything I was told by my parents, politicians and teachers.

  9. Thank you fro introducing m to Mr. Lehrer a few years ago. I don’t know how I managed to miss him.

    • You’re welcome Mike, although I know I was preaching to the converted. 🙂
      I think Lehrer was overlooked in Australia because we were totally overwhelmed by Beatlemania during the 1960’s.

  10. Oh good, now I know who’s to blame for all your blog insanity. 😀 Kidding of course – my whole family is of Lehrer fans, and I have many good memories of the aunt and mom, grandma, sitting in front of the TV (maybe PBS?) and enjoying uproarious laughter on weekends when we all got to watch his performances. He’s of sharp wit, that’s for sure. And a thorn in the side of the scoundrel politicians.

    • Thanks for sharing your story Emmy….I’ve sometimes wondered how popular Lehrer was in his own country considering his tendency to sing about such controversial subjects. He certainly found many kindred spirits in Australia where irreverence and cynicism is a national sport.

      • Popular among the NPR junkies. But in the US you have to appeal to the youngest set possible to become “popular” popular. And a guy playing piano ain’t gonna do it, sadly. He’d be fine if he set himself on fire and hurled himself of a roof. As long as the YouTube download speed was fast.


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