The Magic of Tom Lehrer

Laughter and wit are things seldom associated with maths teachers.

Most spend of us probably spend our time wondering what use advanced algebra will be when we reach adulthood. I personally spent my youth marvelling at just how much my maths teacher looked like Ned Flanders. Neither this dopleganger nor advanced algebra have helped my change my daughters nappy or paid my electric bill however.

But one mathematician has, in his own way, enriched my life.

A Harvard University graduate, Tom Lehrer also taught at the famous university as well as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Wellesley College. But it is not his academics that have enthralled me, though his razor sharp mind has contributed.

No, it is his work as a musician and song writer that have brought laughter to my heart and a satirical edge to 1950s and 60s American history.

Lehrer’s most famous work is perhaps ‘The Elements’ – which simply lists the chemical elements to the “possible recognisable” tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance:

The New York native’s talents extend beyond merely making learning fun, and Lehrer’s work is often laced with a delicious helping of black humour. Songs like ‘I Hold Your Hand in Mine’ or ‘Poisoning Pidgeons in the Park’ can’t help but raise a smile, though Lehrer’s best work may be the tunes he wrote for US satire show That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s, following his ‘retirement’ from touring.

His work on the television show was performed by a female vocalist, often with altered lyrics, but Lehrer did release the ‘proper’ versions on an album named after the TV show, allowing songs such as ‘Wernher Von Braun’ (about the former Nazi scientist who ended up working for the US) and ‘The Vatican Rag’ entered the market place in their intended form:

He gained prominence in the UK after Princess Margaret described her musical taste as “catholic, ranging from Mozart to Tom Lehrer” when receiving an honorary degree. This Royal interest led to deals for the distribution of his work in Great Britain and frequent references in university newspapers. The BBC’s willingness to play his songs didn’t hurt either, giving his work air time he seldom received in the US.

Lehrer’s work also enjoyed a revival in the 1980s when the stage show Tom Foolery opened in London. Containing 27 of Lehrer’s songs it eventually gained the full support of the man himself, who also adjusted some of the lyrics to fit its their new, more modern setting.

Despite a few live performances and interviews, including an appearance on Parkinson, and a small handful of new songs through the years, Lehrer essentially stopped making music in the 1960s, citing a simple lack of interest, a distaste for touring, and boredom with performing the same songs repeatedly.

But his music has still endured, spreading laughter and merriment to millions around the world, and I urge all of you to take in his work on You Tube and/or track down his CDs and DVDs.


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