It’s fun to eulogize

As a mathematician, I’ve spent my entire adult life surrounded by people who enjoy Tom Lehrer (and crossword puzzles and science fiction and NPR and boat shoes) far, far too much for my tastes, but the truth is, many of his songs are incredibly clever, and his live album is very funny. Ben Smith has a fantastic long piece on Leher today.

I had never thought of Lehrer as part of the pre-counterculture left, though I guess I should have given his popularity about professors emeriti. Apologies for the long excerpt, you should read the whole article:

But his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”

Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.

“It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on,” he deadpans in his introduction to the whiny “Folk Song Army” on That Was the Year That Was. “We are the folk song army / Everyone of us cares / We all hate poverty, war, and injustice / Unlike the rest of you squares.”

The New Left agreed with Lehrer on Vietnam. His last public performance, in fact, was on a fundraising tour for George McGovern in 1972. But the singer — who saw himself as “a liberal, one of the last” — felt less at home in the new Democratic Party. In the end, Stevenson’s party, and Lehrer’s, lost — and with it, at least to Lehrer’s mind, a prevailing sense of humor. “Things I once thought were funny are scary now,” he told People magazine in 1982. “I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”






43 replies
  1. 1
    Cervantes says:

    Lehrer.

  2. 2
    Raven says:

    “We advise you Viet Cong to get the hell out of here”!

  3. 3
    ThresherK says:

    Anyone else thinking what I was thinking when I saw that headline about a man of his age?

  4. 4
    Schlemizel says:

    I have loved Leher’s work since I first heard it in 1962. I broke down and bought the CD compilation of all his work and listen to bits from time to time, there is something in his twisted sense of humor that lightens my load. I think he is a liberal because he sees the absurdity of the world and the potential for disaster. But I am not surprised that he may not have been on board with the late ’60’s left, he was, after all, a Harvard educated, atomic project working mathematician who would be more comfortable with the NPR crowd. We can all be allies.

  5. 5
    Schlemizel says:

    @ThresherK:
    Yes, I was afraid he had died. He is very old now & it will happen one day not far enough away. I will be very sad that day.

  6. 6
    J.Ty says:

    You don’t like sci-fi? I would not have guessed.

    I’m a huge fan of the live one, That Was The Year That Was. Some of his other stuff can be good too but that one’s just a classic 60’s satire for me.

    And yeah, you could have extended the title a bit to make it look less like he died? “It’s fun to eulogize the people you despise, as long as you don’t let ’em in your school” is a bit long I guess.

  7. 7
    Suffern ACE says:

    If the hippies weren’t so sanctimonious, we’d have solved all those problems that everyone agrees with? Someone must be favoring war, poverty, and dirty water. There are rooms full of them somewhere.

  8. 8
    PurpleGirl says:

    @ThresherK: Yes. And I went looking to see if any thing had happened to him. He is a part of my childhood — I watched him on TV. He’s one of the reasons my brain was warped to a liberal bent quite early.

  9. 9
    Walker says:

    I really miss Doctor Demento. That was a great radio show.

  10. 10
    Chris says:

    Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.

    Blame it on growing up with all the stereotypes of the post-sixties: that would never have occurred to me either. Primarily because at this point, The Narrative pretty much holds Ivy League Liberal Intellectual Elites and Those Dirty Fucking Hippie College Students as being the same thing, at least that I’ve heard.

  11. 11
    NotMax says:

    His last public performance, in fact, was on a fundraising tour for George McGovern in 1972

    Bzzt. Wrong. Make that 1998.

  12. 12
    ThresherK says:

    @PurpleGirl: Heh. Me, too.

    And I got introduced to him in college during the Reagan era. By a deacon’s daughter, nonetheless, at a not-too-big, not-too-urbane private college.

    Of course, when that passing does come to pass, part of me thinks this post’s headline would be the cheeky black humor he’d appreciate.

    @Chris: During my colleging, in the Reagan 80s, I remember an MTV personality asking assorted MTV viewers in the street if they thought the “liberalism of the 60s was passe (my word), old fashioned”.

    Nothing asked about what the teens of the 80s thought of the firehoses and police dogs and taillight-smashing “conservatism of the 60s”.

  13. 13
    Roger Moore says:

    something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.

    Doesn’t that sum up a lot of Democratic disfunction in a single aside? Totebaggers can’t stand to admit that the DFHs are right, not because they disagree with the DFH goals but because they don’t like their aesthetics.

  14. 14
    raven says:

    @Roger Moore:

    HEY DICK

    Whatever you think of us is totally irrelevant

    Both to us now and to you

    We are the present

    We are the future

    You are the past

    Pay your dues and get outta the way

    ‘Cause we’re not the way you used to be

    When you were very young

    We’re something new

    We don’t quite know what it is

    Or particularly care

    We just do it – You gotta do it

  15. 15
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    See you a Lehrer and raise you a Biff Rose.

  16. 16
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @ThresherK: I’ve been wondering for the past week or so why there’s suddenly such a rush of Lehrerism. Several YouTube clips of some of his classics have recently shown up on my Facebook feed, literally just in the past few days, and now this long read by Ben Smith (which I have not yet read, but will). I still have his original album, which I bought when it first came out, when I was in junior high or maybe younger (sometime in the 1950s, I believe). I think I could still sing every verse to every song on that album by heart. He’s a genius, although IMHO he never again quite measured up to the brilliance of “The Old Dope Peddler,” “The Hunting Song,” “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” “The Irish Ballad,” “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie,” and the inimitable “Lobachevsky.”

  17. 17
    Chris says:

    @Roger Moore:

    I don’t know a lot about Lehrer, but that’s what occurred to me while reading the excerpt too.

    Hippie punching, because we simply can’t endure the humiliation of admitting that they were right about everything.

  18. 18
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Suffern ACE:

    Someone must be favoring war, poverty, and dirty water. There are rooms full of them somewhere.

    There are auditoriums filled with them. Like in Tampa Bay a couple of Augusts ago.

    The Dark Lord has many followers.

  19. 19
    different-church-lady says:

    @raven: So we set the world on FIRE-YAH!!!! ON FIRE-YAH!!!!

    (Which, by the way, is one of my desert island tunes, in the sense that I’d willingly strand myself on a desert island if it guaranteed I’d never have to hear the damn thing again.)

  20. 20
  21. 21
    Bob In Portland says:

    That’s not my department.

    About Christopher Simpson’s BLOWBACK: As the story of Andrija Artukovic, the high-ranking fascist Croatian who found refuge in the United States, and books by John Loftus, Howard Blum, and others tell us, a disgraceful chapter in U.S. Cold War history lies in the systematic use of Nazi and fascist war criminals to help the anti-Soviet aims of American intelligence and national security agencies. Germans and East Europeans were eagerly recruited into and rose to key positions in the Cold War crusade. Simpson’s careful researchwhich underscores the part of the Catholic Church and reveals the role of George Kennan in this policyraises profound questions for scholars, lawmakers, and citizens alike. Henry Steck, SUNY Coll. at Cortland

    Believe it or not, things are happening in Ukraine this morning, although the MSM seems to be averting its eyes.

  22. 22
    pete says:

    Sure, Lehrer would punch hippies. And folkies. And hunters. And lovers and bankers and polluters and … he punched everyone. But it’s worth noting that during the years of Bush the Lesser, he did one interview (a rare event) in which he explained that he didn’t write snark anymore because “I don’t want to satirize them, I want to vaporize them.”

    If you are not familiar with his oeuvre … YouTube has lots.

  23. 23
    raven says:

    @different-church-lady: I didn’t think it was from Mau Mau Amerikon!

  24. 24

    I think quoting “Folk Song Army” as proof that Lehrer disliked the New Left is silly. Satirists sometimes satirize their own side. The old folkies were often part of, or connected with, the liberal establishment of the day. And, like the old folkies, Lehrer’s career began its end when rock emerged.

    But Stevenson…what went down in the 1950s was the old American socialist and anarchist tradition. What did it in, of course, was the massive red scare of the 1950s. Then as now, fierce attacks were leveled at anyone even moderately left of center. They were of perhaps more effect—it was possible to blight someone’s life entirely by claiming a Communist connection.

    To continue the parallel…the USSR led by Stalin was a terrifying enemy. While subversion was nowhere near as widespread as the 1950s right claimed, the 1930s CPUSA was funded by Moscow and shot through with Soviet agents. But the US left was never the subversive threat that the right of the period believed. The American left was far-flung and had a strong anarchist tradition—there was never much chance that the American left would fall in behind a Soviet-style revolution. Stalin discredited himself with most of the rank and file by making an alliance with Hitler. But the spiritual ancestors of our radical right—including the father of the Koch brothers—were afraid, and they mounted a massive defense. Stalin died in 1953, yet the USA made no effort to end the Cold War. It is hard for me to escape the sense that the Cold War might have ended during Khrushchev’s time, had the USA been willing.

    Turning to the present, a strong effort has been made to turn Islam into the new threat. Again, the threat is less than imagined. Again, the USA makes huge and violent mistakes in response to the threat.

    History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

  25. 25

    @pete: “I don’t want to satirize them, I want to vaporize them.”

    Leading to the thought that, if he had been born later, Lehrer would have been a punk rocker.

  26. 26
    smintheus says:

    It gets really tedious to be surrounded by people hanging on your every word, and even worse to have them waiting for you to say something witty and convinced that every single thing you say is some kind of joke. I wouldn’t be surprised is this was one of the main reasons Lehrer just decided he’d had enough of being the public funny man.

  27. 27
    Elmo says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    Nothing beats the virtuosity of all the “-ility” words in “When You Are Old and Gray.”

    An awful debility
    Of lessened utility
    And loss of mobility
    Is a strong possibility.

    In all probability
    I’ll lose my virility
    And you your fertility
    And desirability.

    And this liability
    Of total sterility
    Will lead to hostility
    And a sense of – futility.

    So let’s act with agility
    While we still have ability
    For well soon reach senility
    And lose the ability…

  28. 28
    Chris says:

    @The Raven on the Hill:

    Yep. The economic hard left was killed in the fifties, and never came back. We’re worse off for it.

  29. 29
    Jewish Steel says:

    That was quite interesting. I thought the author’s “conclusion”*

    But the real answer might be the simplest: It’s easier to not care. Music and math had come easy, and Lehrer was able to become a star without caring much.

    was asinine. Ben Smith cannot imagine someone finding the pursuit of wealth and fame worthless. Kinda sad.

    *is the three part essay the future of writing on the internet? i’d like to turn in my laptop now.

  30. 30
    Keith G says:

    but the truth is, many of his songs are incredibly clever, and his live album is very funny

    Duh, just fucking duh!!

    Next thread: The sun is warm.

  31. 31
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Elmo: Yes! Ranks right up there with William S. Gilbert’s finest (from me, that’s high praise, although I know there are some in these parts who have no use for G&S).

  32. 32
    scav says:

    I’ve a cetain fondness for his Electric Company ditties, and heard his other stuff as a callow child performed by hard-core folkies mixed in with old English and mining, etc songs, so any antagonism seems to have been one-way. Our Rabbits were Dying all over the Place at school right before the stuff was thrown into the Bay and ate for lunch in San Jose.

  33. 33
    tybee says:

    @raven:

    blows against the empire

  34. 34
    trollhattan says:

    As a wee kid I knew Lehrer was a genius on listening to his cleverly crafted songs, even as most of the references whizzed on by, ungrasped–there was still enough to parrot to my uneddycated frients. Nichols and May and Bob Newhart were also revered for clever, topical, biting humor.

    Comedy albums, what a concept.

    Bro went to MIT when Lehrer taught there but never had the chance to take his class. Still regrets that.

  35. 35
    Anoniminous says:

    @Chris:

    From the get-go through to ill-relevance the CPUSA was controlled by the New York organizations staffed and peopled by first or second generation immigrants who were altogether too enthralled by their points of origin and the Soviet Union*. As a result and despite all the prattle about “objective conditions” they never, in the words of Robert Sheer, “took the building of an indigenous popular radical organization as their main task.” When us New Lefties came along our stumbling attempts to do that, as evidenced by the Port Huron Statement, was stymied by in-fighting between SDS and its sponsoring organization the League for Industrial Democracy (essentially moribund by 1960) and then obliterated by the Viet Nam War and all the foo-foo that dragged along; the result was SDS didn’t do the hard work of building a indigenous popular radical organization either. When the SDS destroyed itself** nothing else has come along to provide the necessary structure and financing.

    * The destruction of existing indigenous radical movements starting with the Abolitionists through to the Progressive Party, IWW, American Socialist Party, & etc. by a combination of government repression and the affects of the Bolshevik Revolution is another disheartening discussion.

    ** And a Good Thing, too. By 1968 the national leaders of the SDS were off in their own little La-La Fantasy Land. (Revolutionary Youth Movement my ass.)

  36. 36
    Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN) says:

    @Roger Moore:

    Doesn’t that sum up a lot of Democratic disfunction in a single aside? Totebaggers can’t stand to admit that the DFHs are right, not because they disagree with the DFH goals but because they don’t like their aesthetics.

    It cuts the other way just as strongly. One of the reasons I don’t hang around here as much as I used to is the constant denigration of people of moderate temperment whose main crime is that the just don’t want to be assholes.

  37. 37
    pete says:

    @The Raven on the Hill: Quite likely! This is a man whose sensibilities were formed in the 1940s, and wrote The Old Dope Peddlar in (IIRC) 1952. One suspects he would have been ahead of the curve in any era.

  38. 38
    Fair Economist says:

    It’s a pity he’s so private. Great as his songs are, there has to be a lot to the inner life of somebody so bright, perceptive, and talented. But we’ll never know it.

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    I’ve been wondering for the past week or so why there’s suddenly such a rush of Lehrerism.

    Yeah, it’s the communal mind or something. I saw an offhand reference about 2 weeks ago and felt compelled to spend a few hours Googling and Youtubing his work. And being amazed, of course, even though I’ve heard it all many times before.

  39. 39
    jake the snake says:

    DougJ, are you the world’s youngest curmudgeon? Your opening paragraph sounds like a lot “get off my lawn.”

    What is wrong with boat shoes? ;-]

    I am not that familiar with Tom Lehrer, and can’t do a crossword puzzle worth a shit, but I do like science fiction.
    I was first radicalized by reading “The Space Merchants” at 12.

  40. 40

    @Anoniminous: And also the unions, which were one of the strongholds of the indigenous left, having been losing battles since 1948. I have a lot of quarrels with the Left, new and old, but the destruction of US unions was not their work.

  41. 41
    Chris says:

    @Anoniminous:

    I was thinking less of the CPUSA, and more of movements that were more popular and more solidly implanted. As noted above, Bolshevism was pretty much a non-starter in the U.S. – socialists and anarchists went a lot farther. But I was thinking more of things like the populist movements of William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long, which whatever they might’ve been socially, were fairly radical when it came to economics; or the more radical parts of the labor movement, like the people the U.S. Army was called out against at the Battle of Blair Mountain (as Raven points out, the unions were key).

  42. 42
    Visceral says:

    @Roger Moore: Because it’s not just about politics. It’s also about identity, values, lifestyles, etc. The right has that figured out. Yuppies aren’t going to stop being yuppies any more than rednecks are going to stop being rednecks and while both are open to a better way of doing the same old thing, they’ll resist any attempt to fundamentally change the way they live.

  43. 43

    @Chris: what about Eugene V. Debs, labor union leader, socialist, and politician? He won 6% of the votes in the 1912 Presidential election. Imprisoned under the Espionage Act in 1918 by President Woodrow Wilson, he ran for President in 1920, getting nearly a million votes as a write-in candidate, some 3.4% of the votes cast in that election.

    Something was in Debs, seemingly, that did not come out unless you saw him. I’m told that even those speeches of his which seem to any reader indifferent stuff, took on vitality from his presence. A hard-bitten socialist told me once, “Gene Debs is the only one who can get away with the sentimental flummery that’s been tied onto Socialism in this country. Pretty nearly always it gives me a swift pain to go around to meetings and have people call me ‘comrade.’ That’s a lot of bunk. But the funny part of it is that when Debs says ‘comrade’ it is all right. He means it. That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around I believe it myself.”—Heywood Broun, quoting an unnamed socialist in It Seems To Me, 1925-1935 (1935), p. 38

Comments are closed.