Seldom do the circumstances require and endorse the use of the adverb “seldom”, furthermore repeatedly, and even more seldom do the circumstances require and endorse the use of the noun “glee”, furthermore appealing to its original definition, namely a seldom felt emotional state of unconditional delight, happiness, exultation, jubilance.
Yet the aforementioned emotional state the four-letter word “glee” illustrates is the typical response of the average person dwelling in the discovery of Tom Lehrer’s songs, and by the “average person” I mean, with maybe a slight rush of imaginativeness, anybody whose mind may remotely relate to the appreciation of an exquisite encounter between music, humour and genius.
Such is the kind of encounter achieved by Lehrer, an American mathematician, pianist, and singer-songwriter, who, during the 50’s and 70’s, wrote and performed a number of satirical songs whose popularity and relevancy seem to have been unruffled by the passing of time. Lehrer has explained the phenomenon by quoting a friend: “Always predict the worst, and you’ll be hailed as a prophet”.
Born in 1928 to a Jewish family, Lehrer was raised in New York and started playing piano at the age of 7. At the age of 15 he entered Harvard University to study mathematics, and by the age of 19, he had earned a Master’s Degree. While a Harvard undergraduate, Lehrer started writing and singing songs to entertain his friends. Other than, presumably, himself.
As the success of his songs and performances grew and spread, and after applying for a doctoral program, in 1955 Lehrer joined the U.S. army and worked till 1957 for the National Security Agency. His reason for doing so was: “I figured I’d better do it while there was a hiatus between wars”.
Lehrer then went on to pursue his musical career, before he departed from it in 1972, having grown weary of it and its aspects. Then again, according to him: “there wasn’t really a career to speak of. I figure I wrote 37 songs in 20 years, and that’s not exactly a full-time job. It wasn’t that I was writing and writing and writing and quit. Every now and then I wrote something, and every now and then I didn’t. The second just outnumbered the first”.
Lehrer devoted the rest of his professional life, until 2001, to the teaching of mathematics and musical theatre in various universities such as Harvard, MIT and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The 37 songs which compose Lehrer’s exceptional creative legacy have been aptly described as: “the stuff of your adolescent imagination: subversive send-ups of the boy scouts, religion, pollution, plagiarism, prudishness. They are twisted, erudite parodies of the perverse: a necrophiliac’s love song, a Masochism Tango, a nuclear military march. They are acid attacks on political expedience”.
One could regard Lehrer as an early representative of the so-called “sick humour”, though in Lehrer’s case the sickness of his humour seems to merely testify the deviated surplus of the underlying abundance of its health. One of Lehrer’s songs, recorded in 1965 and released on the album “That was the year that was”, is “Pollution”.
When Lehrer performed the song to an audience in Denmark, in 1967, he introduced it by stating the following:”There was a time when an American who was going overseas would be warned not to drink the water. But now we have such a water pollution problem, in our fjords, and air pollution also, so if you are thinking of coming to the United States I suggest you heed the warning in the following song”. What ensues is then a scathing and sardonic denunciation of the issue of pollution and indeed the effects of climate change induced by it, while the piano accompanying is suited to convey a strident feeling of carefree and mindless merriment.
While it is still open for debate whether the extreme climatic phenomena that we have been witnessing in the past weeks – in the US, Mexico, India, and elsewhere – are a consequence of man-induced climate change, these are likely to become the norm in the following decades and centuries because of it. According to Time Magazine, extreme natural disasters have quadrupled since the 1970s.
“Today,” Lehrer said in 2002, “everything just makes me angry, it’s not funny anymore. Things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava”. In 1980, Lehrer had already observed that: “This is no time for satire”.
One can only wonder what time it is now, if, indeed, time is still giving us the time to wonder.
If you visit American city,
You will find it very pretty.
Just two things of which you must beware:
Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air!
They got smog and sewage and mud.
Turn on your tap
And get hot and cold running crud!
See the halibuts and the sturgeons
Being wiped out by detergents.
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly,
But they don’t last long if they try.
You can use the latest toothpaste,
And then rinse your mouth
With industrial waste.
Just go out for a breath of air
And you’ll be ready for Medicare.
The city streets are really quite a thrill –
If the hoods don’t get you, the monoxide will.
Wear a gas mask and a veil.
Then you can breathe,
Long as you don’t inhale!
Lots of things there that you can drink,
But stay away from the kitchen sink!
Throw out your breakfast garbage
And I’ve got a hunch…
that the folks downstream
will drink it for lunch!
So go to the city,
See the crazy people there.
Like lambs to the slaughter,
They’re drinking the water
And breathing [cough] the air!