Friday 14 August 2020

Tom Lehrer and the Cold War by Joan Lennon

Watch this, recorded in September 1967.  Does it bring back memories, or is it something new?

We Will All Go Together

Or how about this one, recorded at the same time:

So Long, Mom (A Song For World War 3)

I've been thinking about the Cold War a lot lately.  Joan Haig and I are writing a non-fiction book on 17 speeches from Abraham Lincoln to Greta Thunberg, aimed at  8-12 year-olds and called Talking History: 150 Years of Speeches and Speakers (due out from Templar in July 2021).  I've been working on a chapter on Rene Cassin and another on Yuri Gagarin and Sally Ride.  So I've been trying to find ways to present the Cold War to primary school and first year secondary school pupils in a way that makes sense.  Sadly, I realise Tom Lehrer isn't exactly the way to do that.  But it brought him back to mind - that sardonic humour - the piano playing - the voice - the smile - those eyes -

Tom Lehrer, who is 92 now, was a ferociously talented mathematician, entering Harvard aged 15 and going on to teach political science and mathematics at MIT and University of California - where he also taught a course in musical theatre.  He is alleged to have invented the Jello Shot.  He started out producing and hand selling his own records, a process of which he said, "Lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola."  He performed; he wrote; he composed; he recorded; he produced work for television comedies and academic mathematical journals; and he spoke with brilliant intelligence to a world gone crazy-stupid.

I grew up in the Cold War.  I was taught to Duck and Cover in school.  The possibility that the world might end in a nuclear holocaust was an ongoing reality.  And those are perhaps the things that made Lehrer's dark satire so vividly one of the voices of the time.  It would be interesting to know if others feel the same.  I listened to his songs with my dad; I introduced my children to Lehrer (I let them get to 15 or so first) via Poisoning Pigeons in the Park on YouTube; Joan Haig remembers her father singing Lobachevsky and The Elements around African campfires; Isaac Asimov heard Lehrer in a nightclub and quotes some of his lyrics in his autobiography.  Is he new to you, or do you have memories of your own of when you heard Tom Lehrer first?  

And, as a dark little theme song for our own times, I leave you with Lehrer's 1997 recording of I Got It from Agnes -



Mary Hoffman said...

“My parents and grandparents thought American politics then were right wing,
isolationist and insane. So when Lehrer toured Australia in 1960, he was
hugely successful in his dozens of concerts here. Was he ever hauled up
before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era?”
from Helen Webberley.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for telling us about his tour in Australia, Helen. I love that his voice was heard all over the world! No, he was never before the Un-American Activities Committee, as far as I know. And I'm sure it isn't something he'd have been quiet about!

Joan Lennon said...

I should have said about I Got It From Agnes - even though this performance was in 1997, Lehrer originally wrote the song in 1953.

Susan Price said...

Thanks for this, Joan. I've really enjoyed listening to Lehrer's songs. My Dad used to have a record of his with 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park' on it.

I shall have to look out more of his songs -- these are brilliant.

Joan Lennon said...

I think we had that record too! It's almost nice to have had his songs drop out of my mind so I can rediscover them!

Mary Hoffman said...

We must have had his album as I know ll these songs and several others. We also had Bob Newhart. It was a good time for American satire.

Joan Lennon said...

Listening to Lehrer was great, wasn't it, but I love seeing him as well - the man had style as well as every else!

Joan Lennon said...

Sorry, everything else -

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Thanks for a great blog, Joan. Tom Lehrer's songs were new to me and I really enjoyed them - he has charisma and style! Clearly incredibly intelligent, too.

Your post is also right on topic for my current reading, which is Celia's 'Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook'!

Good luck with your work on your 'Talking History' book - it sounds fabulous and I look forward to reading it.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks Caroline!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely to hear these - how clever they are! They actually remind me of a person, someone I used to teach with, who was a great fan and a very good singer and died much too young.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks Sue - and don't you just love the way he bends rhymes!