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They’re playing our song

Jeremy Bernstein

I may be the only living soul who witnessed both the first and last public performances of Tom Lehrer. In my junior year at Harvard, 1949, one of my roommates was taking an introductory course in calculus. It was a large course and graduate students were engaged to grade homework assignments. The customary thing to do when performing this tedious job was simply to annotate with crosses and question marks. But on my roommate’s papers there were amusing remarks and even the odd funny drawing. I asked who the grader was and was told that his name was Tom Lehrer. It rang a very faint bell because there was a football fight song pastiche we knew that was also written by a Tom Lehrer:

Fight fiercely Harvard
Fight, fight, fight!
Demonstrate to them our skill.
Albeit they possess the might
Nonetheless we have the will.

The ‘albeit’ is a master stroke.

Lehrer had graduated from Harvard in 1946 at the age of eighteen. He gave his first public concert as a third-year graduate student, at the Sanders Theatre in 1950. I heard one song and realised I was in the presence of some sort of genius.

By this time I had had a few casual encounters with Tom though I was never a member of his ‘posse’ – a few like-minded individuals who played practical jokes. The Harvard Graduate Centre designed by Walter Gropius opened in 1950. One of the works of art installed there was Richard Lippold’s stainless steel World Tree. At the vernal equinox the posse planted ball bearings under it in a fertility rite. They also presented The Physical Revue at the physics department with Tom at the piano and the posse singing. You can find a very scratchy recording of this on the web.

In my senior year the master of Eliot House, John Finley, asked me to provide the entertainment for the graduating senior dinner. To this day I do not know why he chose me. I had no connection to any of the undergraduate performing activities. Perhaps it was because I once showed up at our formal Sunday lunch bringing as my guest Al Sears, the tenor saxophone player in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

I asked the cartoonist Al Capp to speak and Tom also agreed to perform. One of the songs he sang was ‘I got it from Agnes’, about passing on a disease:

She then gave it to Daniel
Whose spaniel has it now.
Our dentist even got it
And we’re still wondering how.

Capp engaged Tom to appear on his short-lived series of radio programmes which might have been the first time Tom was heard outside his narrow Harvard confines.

Tom was in principle working on his thesis. He published a couple of technical papers but in 1955 he was drafted into the army and served for two years. He was assigned to the National Security Agency. I once asked him what he did there and the only thing he would say was that NSA stood for ‘No Such Agency’. He also spent some time at Los Alamos. When he got out he went back to graduate school although by this time he had begun serious touring with his songs. He never got his second degree but he began teaching at MIT.

When I was a graduate student Tom and I sometimes had lunch at the graduate centre. On one occasion a student waiter dropped a tray with a horrible crash. ‘They’re playing our song,’ Tom said.

He never spoke to me much about his family. I knew that at about the time he went to Harvard his parents had divorced. He never mentioned any siblings. I assumed his family was comfortably off since he went to an expensive private school in New York – Horace Mann – and an expensive summer camp in Maine, Camp Androscoggin, where he was also some sort of counsellor. One of his charges was Stephen Sondheim but, as Tom explained to me, since Sondheim was two years younger he didn’t bother to talk with him much.

In 1965 Tom gave up on the idea of ever finishing his thesis and began touring full time. By the 1970s he had had enough. He said that ‘political satire became obsolete’ after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he told me that the ideas for songs just didn’t come very easily any more. He wrote a few delightful ones for children but that was about it. I think the last time he performed in public was in 1972.

George McGovern was running against Richard Nixon for president of the United States. I was dating the actress Estelle Parsons and she invited me to a McGovern rally where she was going to be introduced. I was very surprised and pleased to see Tom there. He sang a few songs and as far as I know never performed in public again. Recently public television has been using his 1967 concert in Copenhagen as a fundraising mechanism. A youthful Tom manages some Danish and the voice of the 93-year-old Tom assures everyone that he is still alive.


Comments

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  • 14 October 2021 at 1:15pm
    Tom Stevenson says:
    The lord is our shepherd, says the psalm.
    But just in case, we'd better get a bomb.

    • 14 October 2021 at 1:50pm
      jeremy bernstein says: @ Tom Stevenson
      There is a mistake in this song which I discussed with Tom. It says "South Africa wants two-that's right, One for the black and one for the white.' Actually South Africa built six and the closest any black got to it was in a uranium mine.

    • 19 October 2021 at 7:32pm
      Mnestheus says: @ jeremy bernstein
      Only one British satirist came close to topping Tom, but though the lyric is unforgettable , and set to Brahms, I can't recall the authors name :

      Bombs shall dig our sepulture
      And bigger bombs exhume us
      Gaudeamus , igitur
      Juvenes dum sumus

  • 19 October 2021 at 7:14pm
    Paladin says:
    Don't miss this:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomfoolery
    Or this:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight_Fiercely,_Harvard
    Somewhere squirreled away I have 2 of his record albums - must dig them out, but then again I no longer have a record player.

  • 19 October 2021 at 8:08pm
    Virginia C goodlett says:
    My parents lived next door to Tom Lehrer in graduate student housing in the late 1940s. He drove them a bit nuts, singing off -key in the middle of the night. But it did mean I grew up on his songs. I've never been able to take Harvard football seriously. Or hunters or Boy Scouts or any number of other sacred cows in American society.

  • 19 October 2021 at 8:33pm
    Richard Hall says:
    Our varsity years were peppered with his ditties. My daughter, 11, has been listening to the periodic table number... and though she's a scout we'll keep that one under wraps a little longer I think...

  • 19 October 2021 at 9:10pm
    Sybil Dorigny says:
    In 1960 I was 12yrs old at boarding school in Providence R.I., and a lot of my education came from Tom Lehrer’s complete works. I still remember every verse of Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and just about all the other songs too. What a genius - I’m so happy he’s still with us.

  • 19 October 2021 at 10:05pm
    Ted Eames says:
    It really is good to know that Tom Lehrer is still alive. The front page of his lyrics and music website consists of a generous disclaimer, putting all his work into the public domain.
    His satire was often much sharper and fiercer than his jaunty tunes would suggest e.g. the original and revised versions of 'I Wanna Go back To Dixie' (The land of the boll weevil / Where the laws are medieval".

    • 20 October 2021 at 12:44pm
      Peterwithey says: @ Ted Eames
      My favourite (because sharpest) line from that song was always "I wanna mix with Southern gentlemen, and put that white sheet on again... I ain't seen one good lyching in years!"

  • 20 October 2021 at 12:17pm
    Peterwithey says:
    I discovered Tom Lehrer in my mid-teens and have never stopped enjoying his songs, despite their having been recorded in a different age. In particular, since I passed 37 a year or two ago I have missed no opportunity to point out that when he was my age, Mozart had been dead for (x) years. If he's reading, I would like to thank Tom Lehrer for gifting all of us those over 35 a joke which will last as long as we live. I might add that on seeing this article, I feared it might be an obituary, but was glad to discover it is not!

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