American Icons: Tom Lehrer
As anyone who has ever tried to write a funny song knows well, it’s not easy. It’s a task often destined to failure, primarily because songs are designed to last, to be listened to repeatedly, for years, if possible – whereas jokes wear out quickly. So to write a song which is funny, and in which the humor doesn’t wear out as quickly as an apple left in the sun, is a true accomplishment, and a rare one.
It’s the reason why we can count successful comic songwriters on our fingers. There are those like Weird Al Yankovic, who followed in the Alan Sherman tradition of writing parody songs – funny lyrics to existing songs. Then there’s Tom Lehrer and Dave Frishberg, both of whom wrote original comic songs – words and music – in which the music they composed is as integral to the humor as the words.
And, of course, there are humorists – songwriters such as Randy Newman, John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III – all of whom have brilliantly used humor in their songs to illuminate human stories, balancing tragic reality with comedy, such as Randy’s song “Rednecks” or Prine’s “Donald And Lydia,” both of which are funny but also serious, using humor to focus the aim.
Tom Lehrer’s songs were often about serious subjects too, such as pollution and drug use, but always attacked with such comic flair that he was the musical equivalent of Charles Adams, creating hilarious but often very dark, even macabre, songs. His songs from the 1950s and early ’60s were funny then and are still funny, because they were so well-crafted. His mastery of all forms of song craft enabled him to take the conventions of the day, such as the love ballad professing eternal devotion, and invert it in such a way that it’s the convention of the song itself that makes the song succeed. “When You Are Old And Gray” is an ideal example, setting up its inversion with a perfectly rhymed and metric quatrain: “Since I still appreciate you/Let’s find love while we may/Because I know I’ll hate you/When you are old and gray.”
Even more extreme in this same regard is “I Hold Your Hand In Mind,” which bent the undying devotion convention to an especially bent place: “I’m sorry now I killed you/For our love was something fine/And till they come to get me/I will hold your hand in mine.”
He was always as brilliant with his choice of music to color a theme as he was with words, such as the jazzy shuffle of “The Vatican Rag,” the wistful folky nostalgia of “My Hometown,” the tender romanticism of “The Old Dope Peddler,” and the insincere anthemic tone of his most famous song, “Pollution,” which many of us sang in school glee clubs growing up.
He was always a mystery, a songwriter who never sought fame and wrote songs for fun while maintaining his real career as a professor of mathematics. Born in New York, 1923, he was one of the first songwriters ever to release an indie album, a small LP of songs he recorded while a student at Harvard, and sold to his pals there. Though it was never intended as more than a lark, it became a hit album, and he was launched, beyond his will, into the limelight.
He recorded more, did some shows, wrote songs for TV’s “That Was The Week That Was” and also “The Electric Company,” and when he ran out of ideas, simply stopped. “My early retirement,” he said, “was in the tradition of J.D. Salinger, Deanna Durbin and Sandy Koufax.”
Long fascinated by this singular mystery man, I spent a long while trying to track him down, and eventually succeeded in finding that he teaches still, at Harvard and also the University of Santa Cruz, and it’s there at the latter that we spoke.
We talked about his songwriting process, which he explained never was disciplined, but was simply sparked whenever a good idea arrived. But the breadth of thought he gave in regard to how to structure a song for maximum effect revealed itself early on. Jokes, he stressed, are not enough to make a funny song work, whereas creative rhyming goes a long way.
“The [rhymes] were always designed, as Sondheim would say, to shore up the lyric. The rhymes can make the song more interesting. And most comic songs are not interesting enough to listen to many times because there’s not enough in between there, apart from the joke … so the problem was to pack in as many rhymes, inner rhymes, and variations.”
Given that his words seemed so immaculately conceived, with never a beat or a rhyme out of place, I wondered how much time he devoted to crafting the lyric. “The main idea was to get a whole song down, even if it involved a dummy lyric. To get the whole song down. And then I would go back and polish and perfect … I’d try to get the whole song formed first, rhyme scheme and all, and then go back and see if I could do better.”
He was always quick at pointing out the folly of the day others would endure, such as what he considered the “atrocious” folk songs written by so many, preferring songwriters to act as professionals, not earthy amateurs. His advice for aspiring songwriters remains the ideal example of his world-view: “You know, when people tell me they have heard hit songs, and think they could write a hit song too, I always tell them the same thing. Don’t. We don’t need you! We have professional songwriters writing songs, thank you very much.”