Stuff I Like: Tom Lehrer

From the 1940s to the ’80s, every third week in February (this week) was National Brotherhood Week. Everyone was (in theory) supposed to love everyone else for the entire week.

Crazy, I know. Which was why the great Tom Lehrer skewered it with satirical song with his song “National Brotherhood Week”:

(Note regarding the song: Muhammad Ali and the wife of the governor of Alabama [“Cassius Clay and Mrs. Wallace”] weren’t exactly on good terms.)

Tom Lehrer was truly the most brilliant musical satirist ever. A strong reason for that he was, for lack of a better term (or lack of wish to use one), a freakin’ genius – according to the venerable Wikipedia, he completed his Bachelor’s in Mathematics at age 19 from Harvard and his Master’s a year later, after which he was teaching courses at MIT and Wellesley, along with his alma mater. The breadth of his classes are even more interesting – along with teaching courses in mathematics (including a math course for liberal arts majors – sort of like a “Rocks for Jocks” course in the Mathematics Dept.), he taught courses in political science and musical theater. He was also a ridiculously intelligent enlistee in the Army, and supposedly invented the Jell-O shot while working in the NSA (so all alcohol drinkers can thank him for that). 

The breadth of his courses taught makes the breadth of his song topics terribly unsurprising. Take, for example, the following three songs:

“Lobachevsky,” about plagiarism in mathematics (and academia in general, for that matter):

…”Oedipus Rex”, a commentary of both film of the day and of the great Sophocles work:

…and “Pollution,” as the title implies (except just in the United States – about the same time as Silent Spring):

However, most of his songs were political, such as “Who’s Next” and “New Math”:

Most of his first songs, mind you, were first made popular via simple word-of-mouth (take that, MySpace Music). This led him to be an influence to “Weird Al” Yankovic and one of the greats to Dr. Demento. So raise a glass (or a Jell-O shot, if you prefer) and say cheers and Happy National Brotherhood Week to Tom Lehrer.

Join me for next week’s installment of Saturday Night Stuff I Like, when I discuss Animaniacs.

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