Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ben Greenman on Tom Lehrer

"He started writing and performing while an undergraduate at Harvard … and he continued clowning through his graduate studies in math. In 1953, Lehrer bought an hour of studio time and released 'Songs by Tom Lehrer'; over the decade that followed, he became, much to everyone’s surprise, a pop-culture sensation. His songs had more to do with show tunes than rock — 'The Elements' set the periodic table to Gilbert and Sullivan’s 'Major-General’s Song' — but he also had a nasty topical streak. … [I]n the wonderfully sour 'National Brotherhood Week,' hopelessness springs eternal. … [W]hat’s most newsworthy here … is a DVD that collects a 1967 performance from Norwegian TV … and more. In Lehrer’s liner notes, he recalls the Catch-22 of trying to write biting satire for a network TV show … and — most charmingly — gives away more credit than he takes, acknowledging as many contemporaries and forebears as possible (Danny Kaye gets mentioned twice). This may be an academic trait, or possibly Lehrer’s own, but it has been part of his work since the start; 'Lobachevsky,' one of his earlier songs, lampoons a mathematician who steals the work of others" ("Pop Notes," New Yorker, 4/19/10).


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