From A Distance
From a 2 Chainz track to “The Elements Song,” the legacy of Tom A. Lehrer '46
Forget going platinum or snagging a Grammy nomination—the gold standard of musical success in today’s world is appearing on a 2 Chainz track. The list of individuals whose voices have been heard alongside 2 Chainz is a heavyweight lineup: Kanye West, Drake, John Legend, Kendrick Lamar, and, of course, famed musical satirist Thomas A. Lehrer ’46.
Perhaps some explaining is in order. Last year, 2 Chainz’s record company sent a letter to the octogenarian Lehrer in Santa Cruz, Calif., asking permission to sample Lehrer’s song “The Old Dope Peddler” (a drugged-up parody of “The Old Lamplighter”) on 2 Chainz’s track “Dope Peddler.” Lehrer sent back a letter giving his consent, and then, as if to casually prove he hadn’t lost his sense of humor, tacked the following note onto the end: “My regards go out to Mr. Chainz. And may I call him 2?”
Lehrer’s been happily retired from teaching math at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for several years now, but he’s been out of musical comedy for almost 40. It’s rare, almost unheard of, for a comedian’s material to remain relevant and resurface this long after he’s stopped producing new material. Comedy, especially satire, doesn’t usually have the shelf life of other genres—it often relies on referencing culture and contemporary events that become less and less relatable to newer generations. Is Lehrer’s star as bright as it was decades ago? Has his work stood the test of time? Sixty years after the release of his first record, what makes Lehrer relevant today?
Looking beyond the locally revered “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” and Jell-O shots (which Lehrer allegedly invented while in the Army), the short answer is that Lehrer’s tongue-in-cheek style of illuminating absurdities—whether in politics or popular culture, whether through parody or satire—hasn’t been replicated since his retirement. Though that’s due partially to his irreverent, sometimes morbid approach, Lehrer’s attitude towards the production of his material was equally unique. Unlike many artists, Lehrer recognized that he was at his best when writing and performing songs was genuinely fun for him. As a result, he remained a purposeful outsider to the world of comedy, selectively employing his observational wit and eye for irony to construct a small but inimitable catalog of thought-provoking music.
The only “dissertation” Lehrer ever finished was a poem he wrote at 15 (he never completed one on statistics started as a graduate student in Harvard’s math department). Entitled “Dissertation on Education,” the poem exhaustively enumerated Lehrer’s academic disinterests—Roman history, trigonometry, and poetry, among other topics—or “the things one must know to have ‘culture,’” the young Lehrer termed them. However, in the type of ironic twist that would later become one of his musical trademarks, Lehrer submitted the seemingly anti-education poem as his application essay to Harvard, ending it in a boldfaced appeal: “And I’ll work like a slave / And always behave / And maybe I’ll get into Harvard.” The quasi-reverse psychological ploy worked; Lehrer matriculated in 1944.“
[Tom] had a way of looking at the world…from a distance. He would see things that people didn’t see,” recalls Lehrer’s classmate, musical collaborator, and lifelong friend David Z. Robinson ’46. During graduate school, Robinson says, Lehrer’s unique, witty viewpoint made him stand out even among extraordinarily smart people. “A group of 8 to 10 [of us] would eat every meal [together]. That included people like [Philip W. Anderson ’43], who later won a Nobel Prize,” Robinson says. “Tom was the intellectual center of this group.”
After entering Harvard’s doctoral math program, Lehrer started to channel his wry sense of humor into more focused artistic output. In 1951, Lehrer wrote “The Physical Revue,” a comedic musical review session for the freshman-level physics class his friend Lewis M. Branscomb was teaching. For the “Revue,” Lehrer wrote almost 20 songs about what seemed to be irredeemably mundane topics (physics, math, and chemistry), setting many of those songs to show tunes and popular melodies. Take a stanza from “There’s a Delta For Every Epsilon”: “If an epsilon is a hero / Just because it is greater than zero / It must be mighty discouragin’ / To lie to the left of the origin.”
Lehrer and the “Tom Lehrer Quartet” (which featured Robinson and Branscomb) then performed the “Revue” for Branscomb’s class. According to Branscomb, the show was a smash with both the students and the faculty at whom the show poked good-natured fun. “There was loud enough laughter and applause that the faculty in the building could hear it.... They insisted that we re-perform ‘The Physical Revue’ the next day,” Branscomb says.
Following a later performance of the “Revue” in front of an audience of 500 at Allston Burr Hall, The Crimson published an enthusiastic review, deeming Lehrer “the most original funnyman in this—or almost any other—vicinity.” The success of the “Revue” encouraged Lehrer to start writing more original material, which would become the basis for his first studio album.
That resulting album, “Songs By Tom Lehrer,” featured early examples of Lehrer’s satire, including “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie” (“I wanna talk with southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again / I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years”), and his morbid humor, as on “I Hold Your Hand In Mine” (hint: the hand isn’t attached to her arm). Lehrer personally bought 400 copies, hoping to sell 250 to friends, family, and classmates in order to break even. The 24-minute album sold 10,000 copies in its first year and would go on to sell 370,000 copies in the 1950s alone.
Jeffrey B. Morris, an archivist for the radio program “The Dr. Demento Show” who has interviewed Lehrer multiple times as research for an informal biography, says that the record’s success is all the more impressive given Lehrer’s nonexistent advertising and constrained distribution. “He was not signed to a major record label…he wasn’t on any major TV and didn’t get any major airplay in the ’50s. It was all basically word-of-mouth—to sell 370,000 records that way is just astounding,” Morris says.
Even as “Songs By Tom Lehrer” was beginning to sell steadily, Robinson and Branscomb both say that at the time, Lehrer still had no desire to embark on a long-term, professional musical career. “The music and the performance were a sideline,” Robinson says. Branscomb agrees, emphasizing that Lehrer was mostly in it for the fun of the thing. “Tom never particularly wanted to be a celebrity.”
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