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.”