Thursday, April 8, 2010

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park with Tom Lehrer

I was having a discussion recently with a friend when I happened to mention singer and songwriter Tom Lehrer. The friend said he didn't know Lehrer although when I mentioned a song title or two he had heard of those. I suggested that he should seek out some of his music and offered to send a CD. But the conversation got me thinking. How many people out there have heard Lehrer's brilliant and hilarious music but have no idea about the singer himself? I know I hadn't even heard of him until Jeff introduced me to his music. Since then I've been collecting his albums. And reading a bit about him.

Coincidentally it is his birthday today, a fact I wasn't aware of when I started this post yesterday.
Tom Lehrer is a bit of an oddity in the music world. He has spent most of his life teaching mathematics and political science at places like Harvard and MIT. He has a doctorate from Harvard in mathematics. He is clearly a brilliant man. But when Lehrer wasn't teaching he was found singing his witty and satirical songs in nightclubs around the Harvard campus. He started a music career by writing intelligent songs with a dark humor (Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, The Masochism Tango, We Will All Go Together When We Go...) or songs that satirize all types of institutions (Fight Fiercely Harvard, Bright College Days, It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier...).

As people began to flock to his live shows, which were filled with his humorous songs and witty banter, he created his first record and began selling it on the Harvard campus. This eventually led to distribution and other albums. These live shows are well worth seeking out and I just found out that a DVD has been released of them. Most of the links included above are to videos of his live shows, often with bits of introductions which are just as funny of the songs. I had read that Lehrer hated the live performances and stopped them as soon as he was able.

When most people think of Lehrer, it is his trademark song "The Elements", that they remember. This is humorous considering that it is simply a listing of the periodic elements sung to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune. But the song is so catchy that you simply can't forget it once you hear it. In fact it was that song that got me interested in the show NCIS. I happened to catch an episode that used that song as a clue and I was hooked. I'm such a Lehrer fan that anything using his music has to be quirky enough for me. Lehrer has developed something of a cult following in the US. Considering that he has not performed live or written any songs since the early 70s it is sometimes surprising how enduring his popularity has been. But when you have music as catchy and intelligent as Lehrer has written, I can see why his music (even his political music) has stood the test of time.


Salt said...

Ok, you know I'm starting a blog, you might not know I am struggling with keywords.

Seriously, you think "The Elements" is something you're going to want to key on? I don't know....I find I tag all my posts with the same thing, pretty much.


Cat B said...

I didn't think I'd ever use Trompe L'oeil again but I have two listings for it. Stranger things have happened. Otherwise it never hurts to have extra tags.

I probably tend to go overboard on my tags. But you know me, I'm not that good at being minimalist with words. :-)