Tom Lehrer:

The Political Musician That Wasn't

By Jeremy Mazner

Final paper for "Music and Social Movements"

© Copyright 1995, 1996. All rights reserved. jmaznerNOSP@M@wesleyan.edu


Tom Lehrer could have been one of the musical giants of the '60s. He did most of his song writing in the 1950's and 60's, a time period Scheurer dubs the "new folk revival"[21], and like other musicians of the day, Lehrer often had a message he wanted to bring to his audiences. In the mold of a political folk musician, his music was shunned by mass media; and a song of his was even once reprinted in Sing Out!magazine, a publication that a few years later would be one of the first to spread the songs of Bob Dylan [21]. But quite unlike contemporaries such as Dylan and Phil Ochs, who rose to fame on the wings of the New Left, Lehrer's song writing career was stifled by the changes of that era.

The Man

Lehrer grew up around music. He was born in 1928, and began taking classical piano lessons 8 years later. His personal preference, however, was for the popular music of the day. His parents graciously allowed him to change to a piano teacher who was willing to indulge his desire for show tunes. In future years, Lehrer's songs would draw heavily from this early exposure. "Having a popular music teacher worked out very well for me. I began writing tunes when I was seven or eight. But I was in college when I began writing parodies of popular songs," recalled Lehrer in an article in American Scholar [4]. His later satirical songs evolved from these simple parodies.

After graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in mathematics at the early age of 18 ("Everyone in college was young then because ... everyone who was not young was in the army." [4]), he stayed on to receive his M.A. the following year. Content (for the moment) in the world of academia, Lehrer entered Harvard's doctoral program, where he would remain on and off for the next sixteen years. During that time, Lehrer held teaching appointments at MIT, Harvard and Wellesley, worked for several defense contractors (including the Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear laboratory in Los Alamos,) and, when convinced he could find a position "which did not involve shooting anybody or having anybody shoot at me," [11a], he joined the army for a two year stint1. And somewhere in between, he began and nearly completed a career as a performer.

His Musical Career

Lehrer began his serious efforts at song writing in his undergraduate days, parodying in both lyrics and style the popular music of the day. According to Lehrer, "The only one of those songs that eventually made it into my repertoire was 'Fight Fiercely , Harvard,' which was written in 1945 and shows it. I started singing these songs at parties, but never with the intention of their becoming commercial."[4] In 1950, he began performing at Harvard functions, but his renown quickly spread to the Cambridge community, where he began singing at "dance intermissions and smokers and things like that."[4] After several years of this, he began to tire of performing the same songs over and over again. Polling his concert audiences, he figured that he could find 300 customers for a Tom Lehrer record, and so in 1953 recorded The Songs of Tom Lehrer. "It was a case of the right technology at the right time. By then there were LPs that you could ship yourself. With the old 78s this would have been impossible,"[4] recalled Lehrer. As his songs were considered too crude too play on the radio, Lehrer had to rely on the record to spread his music. After several months of local sales, he began receiving orders from around the county as Cambridge college students brought the album home with them to share with their friends. With his renown somewhat on the rise, Lehrer began performing more often. In short order, however, he succumbed to the draft board, serving two years using his mathematical skills on various classified projects.

He left the army in 1957, just as the concept of a touring popular music concert was emerging. "There was no real concert circuit; the Kingston Trio started all that. The idea of a George Carlin or a David Steinberg giving a concert just didn't exist."[4]. Finding that he was still in demand, Lehrer gave his first concert that year at Hunter College, and spent the next 3 years touring most of the English speaking world, including Australia and New Zealand. Even in the prime of his performing career, however, Lehrer knew that live entertainment was not his cup of tea. In a 1957 article in Newsweek , he quite bluntly said "I wouldn't want to do this all my life. It's okay while I'm still an adolescent,"[9] a sentiment he would later expand on.

By 1959, he was getting tired of the concert circuit. As a farewell, he recorded a second album, An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer, during a concert at Harvard. "I didn't want to put the record out until I was ready to retire from performing. I figured that if the record was out, who would want to come hear me?"[4] He returned to his life as a Harvard grad student in 1960, where he would continue until concluding in 1965 that he far preferred teaching mathematics to researching mathematics. "I kept saying to myself that if I ever get this dissertation written, I will never have to do any research again. Then I realized that I must be telling myself something, so I decided enough is enough," [4].

Though he was no longer performing, Lehrer's song writing abilities were not laying idle. In 1964, NBC began broadcasting an Americanized version of the British show That Was The Week That Was. In Lehrer's words, the show was billed as a "biting, satirical, hard hitting, no holds barred show...but we're not out to offend anybody. I listened to it for a few weeks and I thought 'hey, I can write stuff as good as that.' So I started to do it and send them in. I never actually appeared on the show, but I sent them in and usually they used them."[11a]

Thus were born Lehrer's most satirical and politically relevant songs. By 1965, he had enough new material to fill another record. Although he still didn't have much of a desire to perform, he was irked that "usually the program would cut the best lines [to make the songs less offensive], so one of the reasons I recorded was so that I could at least have it on record that this is how it was supposed to be."[11a] To assure himself that audiences would actually enjoy the material, Lehrer did a four week stint at a San Francisco club, recording That Was The Year That Was during his last week there. "After the second week, I realized that I was not cut out to be a performer. It requires more than the ability to do it. You have to have the desire."[11a]

With the recording of Year That Was, Lehrer, who was disheartened by the "decline of the liberal consensus since the Kennedy era,"[12] began to remove himself from the public eye. He did several television appearances, but most of them were abroad, where he was in some cases better known than in America2 . Throughout the early 70's, he lent his voice to left wing political causes, "McCarthy ["Eugene, that is, not Joe"], McGovern and those clowns. Whoever it was that year."[22] By 1974, Lehrer had mostly dropped out of sight. He had quietly written several songs for the PBS children's show The Electric Company, glad that "somebody had wanted me to use my craft rather than just repeat what I had already done."[4] Lehrer, it seemed, would have been content to live out the rest of his life in the classroom, but in 1978, British theater producer Cameron Mackintosh approached Lehrer about creating a musical review of Lehrer's songs.

Impressed by his credentials (Mackintosh had just produced a well regarded review of Stephen Sondheim shows), Lehrer agreed, and two years later Tomfoolery opened in London. The world wide success of the show brought Lehrer back into the spotlight just long enough for him to explain to a number of journalists why he had stopped performing and writing songs. Today, Lehrer has once again faded from the public eye; his songs get minimal airtime on radio shows such as The Dr. Demento Show, but that's sufficient to keep a steady stream of new fans flowing in.

His Songs

Over the span of his song writing career, Lehrer's music underwent a significant evolution. Although his biting satirical wit is evident in the spoken introductions on his first two albums, the songs themselves are mostly harmless parodies. Lehrer enjoyed twisting the poplar music of the day into his own demented songs. The liner notes from his first album give a good sense of this. A few examples:

"Fight Fiercely Harvard": "Most football fight songs have a tendency to be somewhat uncouth and violent. This one, however, ... is rather dainty and thus fills a need which has long been felt."

"The Irish Ballad": "The folk song has in recent years become the particular form of permissible idiocy of the intellectual fringe."

Even the album's strongest political song, "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie" ("I wanna talk with Southern genn'lmen/Put my white sheet on again/I ain't seen a good lynching in years"), is described simply as "a typical Dixie song, all about the many delightful features of the South." Despite the strong message against racism, one gets the feeling that Lehrer's intention was indeed simply to parody the form and content of a Southern song.

In An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer, Lehrer's second album, we begin to see songs whose primary source of humor are their lyrics. With the notable exceptions of "The Elements" (a takeoff on a Gilbert and Sullivan tune, with lyrics consisting of the names of every element in the periodic table) and "Clementine", the humor of the songs is derived mostly from the their message. The message is not always political; indeed, on this album the message is usually quite frivolous, as in the song "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park". But in several songs, Lehrer offers his commentary. "A Christmas Carol", for example, tells of the commercialization of that holiday, while in "We Will All Go Together When We Go", Lehrer gleefully explains the benefits of mutually assured nuclear destruction.

It is in his third album, however, that Lehrer makes his strongest political and social commentaries. As explained earlier, the majority of these songs were written for a television show that focused on current political events. "Every one of those [song] topics was something that was in the news that week," explained Lehrer [11a]. It is in these pieces that we see the biting humor evident in the introductions on earlier records finally expressed in song. Some of the more caustic examples:

"Wherner von Braun": "I'll sing you a tale/Of Wherner Von Braun/A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience/...'Once the rockets are up/Who cares where they come down?/That's not my department,' says Wherner Von Braun"

"M.L.F. Lullaby":"Once all the Germans were war-like and mean/But that couldn't happen again/We showed them a lesson in 1918/And they've hardly bothered us since then"

Year That Was served as Lehrer's breakthrough album. Most of the songs had been written specifically for the general viewing audience of Week That Was, meaning that the occasional crudity and raunchiness of Lehrer's earlier songs was mostly absent. This made them the first Lehrer songs that radio stations felt comfortable playing.

His Audience

By 1965, the release year of Year That Was, Lehrer was becoming an increasingly well known musician who shared his opinion of the way things ought to be through his songs. The often explicitly grotesque nature of his earlier works meant that his audience had grown mostly through word of mouth. In Lehrer's words, "For the first twelve years [until Year That Was came out]...nobody ever played them on the radio. I wasn't on television, maybe some late night disc jockey would do something on April Fools, and occasionally some FM station might do it, but it wasn't known to the public in general because it wasn't in the mass media."[11a] In addition, the often intricate lyrics and painstakingly correct grammar demanded listeners with a certain degree of education.

This sophistication, combined with the explicit nature of most of Lehrer's songs ("But still I keep your hand/As a precious souvenir/The night you died I cut it off/ ... /For now each time I kiss it/I get bloodstains on my tie"), confined his audience (at least initially) to those who could laugh at the crude jokes and appreciate the vocabulary, namely, college students. With the release of his first album, Harvard students and other Cambridge intelligentsia were able to share Lehrer's music with their friends. As mail orders began to arrive at his home, Lehrer noticed that the majority of the orders were coming from college towns.

While these students were enjoying Lehrer's songs, the press, and presumably the world at large, had a rather different opinion of him. On the back of Evening, Lehrer proudly quotes poor reviews of his music in such mainstream periodicals as the New York Herald Tribune ("More desperate than amusing...") and the London Evening Standard ("Obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated"). About his first appearance at the Blue Angel, Lehrer recalled "There was a reviewer from The New Yorker who, I was told, didn't like me at all. But he had the kindness not to mention me when he reviewed the rest of the show."[4] In 1954, a short article appearing in The Saturday Review declares Lehrer "a wandering minstrel with no place to wander," whose "marksmanship is dead center in no more, say, than in half [of the songs on his first album]." [10]

By 1957, however, Lehrer had sold 180,00 copies of his first record3 , and the songs that would eventually make up Evening were gaining popularity. A magazine article from that year called his night club performance "a burble of gleefully sardonic songs,"[9]; A short news item in Billboard two years later applauded Lehrer's "brilliant and coruscating parodies," noting that his concert provides "two hours of solid satanic merriment." [14] As society became less prudish, Lehrer's popularity continued to grow. Looking back at that change in a 1982 article in the Washington Post , Lehrer wrote "As for language, almost everything goes now. That is not to say that verbal taboos have disappeared, but merely that they have shifted somewhat. In my youth, for example, there were certain words you couldn't say in front of a girl; now you can say them, but you can't say 'girl'."[12] When he recorded his final album in 1965 at the hungry i in San Francisco, Time magazine reported that Lehrer "proved to be the nightclub's biggest draw since the Limelighters played there in 1959." [23]

A Movement Musician?

Tom Lehrer: A man with strong political ideals and the wit to express them in humorous songs, whose core audience of college students would be the next generation of American leaders and thinkers. A Pete Seeger or a Phil Ochs would have loved an audience like that, looking forward to the opportunity to really inspire listeners who had the wherewithal to make a difference. And Lehrer?

"All my life I was reading about this stuff, oh Dylan did this and the Beatles did that, and I'm thinking 'well I don't know, I didn't see it.' You know, we're all going to hold hands and be beautiful and change the world... well that's nice, but then you go back to the dorm and get stoned." [11a]

This is a bit surprising to hear from a man who describes himself as an "earnest liberal"[12] and helped campaign for Eugene McCarthy. Did Lehrer never feel that his music could move and inspire his listeners? "No. I even wrote a song about it, called 'The Folk Song Army', that tells you where I stand on that issue. I don't think humor does that."[4] Lehrer has in fact put in a significant amount of time thinking about the reasons his music is constrained to a sideline, amusement only role.

Lehrer believes that humorous songs are limited in their ability to educate. "The very nature of satire is that you have to exaggerate to be funny. If you just said 'this but on the other hand that but never the less this' then it wouldn't be funny. You have to exaggerate everything, that if you drink your glass of water you die," postulates Lehrer, noting that this means an "opponent then can easily say 'well yeah, but that's exaggeration, that's not how it is'. Which is true, and that's how I react to some of the other comedians who are on the other side." [11a]

"There's a great feeling, too, that there are some subjects you musn't be humorous about, even if you're humorous on the right side. One comedian got into terrible trouble on a New Year's program by saying 'The Road Safety people say that 400 people will be killed on the roads tonightóso far there have only been 125 casualties. Now you people are just not cooperating. Why don't you have one more little drink, and the get out into your cars...' It was very good road safety propaganda, but people were shockedójust as they were with my "Dope Peddler"4 song."[19]

Equally important, Lehrer feels that it is not possible to induce insightful soul searching through humor. "To make [listeners] laugh they have to be somehow insulated and believe that the target is other people, not them. It's mostly about them, whoever the them are."[11a] Lehrer's favorite example of this is his song "Wernher von Braun"5 , which is about the divorce of ethics from science. Over the years, Lehrer has "been amused at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without realizing it was about them."[12] Lehrer himself hid behind this insulation when he was writing songs. "I'm thinking it's the other guy. I'm thinking 'I'm a good wonderful person, I don't pollute the water.' There's always some rationalization about it that lets you out."[11a]

Despite the limitations imposed by exaggeration, rationalization and taste, Lehrer feels that humor can still deliver a message. "A lot of [my] songs had a point of view," says Lehrer. It's just that his audience already agreed with him. "All that stuff is preaching to the converted. The people who already agreed with me said 'oh right, he really hit the nail on the head there, you know, that's terrific' ... [but] those were the people who agreed with me. I tried as a little experiment listening to right wing satire, and seeing if it moved me. It didn't." Lehrer feels that even "M.L.F. Lullaby"6 , one of his strongest songs, had little effect on listeners who disagreed with him. "I was pointing out to someone, essentially to people who were already on my side, this feeling of a little wariness about letting Germany back in. But I don't think it was going to change any body's mind, like a congressman who would listen and change his vote." [11a]

But even the pessimistic Lehrer can imagine a situation where his songs might have had an effect. "I think when people played my records for [friends] who would then see that people they respected though this was funny, that might move them just a little bit, at least to consider an opposing point of view. But I don't think that it would change anybody's mind. I don't think humor does that. I think it moves people a little, and softens them up for the hard pitch. By it's very nature, as I say, you have to exaggerate, you can't really make a strong point." [11a]

So it's no surprise that Lehrer never had high political aspirations for his songs. "I wasn't attempting to move anybody, because I didn't think there was anything that they had to be convinced of that I was, in my infinite wisdom, in on and that they as of yet were unwashed, and had to be educated."[11a] He has often said that his goal in song writing was to get laughs, not applause. "If the audience applauds they're just showing they agree with me. They're not being amused by it. I'm sure in 1968, I could have gotten up and said something like 'Cops are pigs,' and they'd applaud But that's not humor. So I dropped out just in time."[18] Indeed, Lehrer wrote most of his songs in order to amuse his friends and, perhaps more importantly, himself. He takes a fierce pride in "caring about such things as nuance and the challenge of finding a rhyme. 'How about orange', I hear someone challenge. Let's see now ... Ah, I have it: Eating an orange/While making love/Makes for bizarre enj-/Oyment thereof. Sorry, just flexing." [12]

Lehrer in fact has a certain amount of disdain for songs (and songwriters) that aspire to change the world, i.e. 60s era political folk. In his earlier recordings, he makes fun only of the poor rhyming and grammar of folk songs. His introduction to "Irish Ballad" (on his first record), for example, begins with "Now I'd like to turn to the folk song, which has become in recent years the particularly fashionable form of idiocy among the self-styled intellectual." He goes on to describe the song as having "a sort of idiotic refrain ... running through interminable verses. This song though does differ strikingly from the genuine folk ballad in that ... the words which are supposed to rhyme actually do. One of the more important aspects of public folk singing is audience participation ... so if any of you feel like joining in, I'd appreciate it if you would leave."

His second album, too, throws a jab at folk music. Evening includes the song "Clementine", in which Lehrer rewrites the folks song of the same name into a number of different musical styles. The introduction to this song postulates that "the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people." Lehrer's strongest folk music message, however, is delivered in "The Folk Song Army" on Year That Was. As he explains in the introduction, this song is aimed particularly at the protest songs of the day, and his criticism of the songs moves beyond the lack of rhymes (although he includes that as well!) In a whiny, nasal voice, Lehrer croons

There are innocuous folk songs, yeah,
But we regard 'em with scorn.
The folks who sing 'em have no social conscience,
Why, they don't even care if Jimmy crack corn.

If you feel dissatisfaction,
Strum your frustrations away.
Some people may prefer action,
But give me a folk song any old day.

Isn't he a folk musician?

The irony of Lehrer's vitriolic attack on folk music is that his songs fit the folk bill almost perfectly, as we have defined it in class. One of the primary features of folk music is that it is accessible to audiences, both musically and lyricaly. Although Lehrer richly embellishes his songs when he's at the piano, the chord progressions he uses are simple enough to be played by even a mediocre guitar player. As for the words, Lehrer takes pride in the fact that his lyrics are both easy to hear and easy to understand. "The whole thing went down the drain when it became necessary to print the record lyrics on the back of the jacket. Not the fact that they did it, I have no objection to it, but [that] it was necessary because you couldn't hear the lyrics from the record. I try and listen to some of these people ... and I don't even know what they're saying. And then when I read the liner notes, it's too poetic, that is to say, incomprehensible." [11a]

Another qualification of folk music is that it comes from the people. While Lehrer didn't set out to voice the concerns of the people, his opinions did coincide with those of a large body of listeners, namely the "liberal consensus" (as Lehrer likes to refer to it.) But as Lehrer himself points out, folk music "isn't all political or social commentary at all. Most folk songs are about love."[11a] As are a number Lehrer's songs, in their own twisted way.

Not only is it easy to consider Lehrer's music to be folk: it also isn't much of a stretch to envision Lehrer himself as a political musician. While his early albums had minimal political content, The Year That Was, while humorous, can hardly be seen as anything other than political. And Lehrer has always been willing, if not eager, to lend his music and voice to political movements. Although he jokingly suggests that he contributed mostly out of guilt, Lehrer performed and helped raise money for liberal campaigns in 1968, 70 and 72. "It wasn't a matter of winning the election, it was a matter of getting people aroused somehow to at least work and make a substantial showing, and maybe help the congressional elections, which it might have done."[11a] This, presumably, is the hard pitch for which his music might soften people up. He gladly gives permission to groups who want to reprint his songs; "Pollution", in particular, can be found in a number of environmental songbooks7.

He has even been involved, as any good political musician must be, in a controversy or two. During his 1960 Australian tour, officials in Adelaide blocked Lehrer from performing in that city until he agreed to omit certain morally corrupting songs from his repertoire. At the same time, the Australian states of Victoria and Queensland banned the sale of his first album because they objected to its content. However, Lehrer's most prominent public controversies occurred in 1967, when New York's educational TV station aired "The Vatican Rag" ("There the guy who's got religion'll/Tell you if your sin's original/If it is try playin' it safer/Drink the wine and chew the wafer/Two four six eight/Time to transubstantiate"). The station had taped Lehrer performing the song as part of a weekend long fund-raiser, and was planning on showing the tape several more times. But complaints started coming in after the first showing8 . Lehrer, however, seemed relatively unaffected by the complaints. "It was kind of fun to see them squirm. If they stopped playing it for the rest of their fundraising, then they would be giving into exactly [what] they were claiming they were doing that the other stations weren't, namely avoiding censorship and being independent. On the other hand, if they played it, they would risk alienating a lot of the donors, so either way they lose. They decided to go ahead and play it, so they got a lot of protest."[11a] Only a few months later, the same song led to another controversy when a teacher in Putnam Valley, New York, played it to his seventh grade class as an example of satire. The teacher was fired and then eventually reinstated, prompting the still unaffected Lehrer9 to write "a letter to the paper saying how funny it all was, and they printed it. But it wasn't funny to the teacher, poor thing."[11a]

It is hard, however, to make the image of Tom Lehrer as political folk musician jive with the reality of a man who rather abruptly stopped writing new works just as the era of the protest song was coming into full swing. Even from the early days of his musical fame, Lehrer made it clear that he was not interested in being a performer. The issue of whether one can be a political musician without live performances is best left for future discussion. But that Lehrer even stopped writing just as the hippies and the conflict over Vietnam emerged is a bit surprising. Lehrer, however, has a good reason for his retirement. "In the late '60s and early '70s audiences wanted not to be amused but to be exhorted, not to laugh but to march, and so the meaningful songs that resulted were even less fun than a barrel of monkeys."[12]

Lehrer also notes with chagrin that "Another pervasive change in this country has been the decline of literacy. Admittedly, one always used to hear that a picture was worth a thousand words, but that was before they devalued the word."[12] He explains further: "I can't make references I could have made 20 years ago. Kids today are just as smart as ever but not well-read. They can tell you what happened on every episode of Gilligan's Island, but nothing about Shakespeare's plays."[22]

But perhaps the most important change of the late '60s for Lehrer was that the issues suddenly became far more complex, leading to the "decline of the liberal consensus since the Kennedy Era. We earnest liberals [used to know] clearly where we stood: lynching was bad, Stevenson was good, etc. The issues seem far more complicated now (i.e., feminism, abortion, affirmative action, etc.). It's impossible to write a funny song when you can see both sides. A song kidding about South Africa might still elicit some easy laughs, but one attempting to do the same to Israel would probably make half the audience walk out (or perhaps attack the other half)."[12] Lehrer recalls that "I used to pick up the morning paper and giggle my way through breakfast. Now I get either so angry or so scared that I have to wait until after I eat to read it."[12] The reason why Lehrer has stopped writing, then, is not necessarily a lack of subjects: "I can just pick up the paper and get ten topics, but how do you write a song about it? It's easier to be funny when you're not bitter and angry; If I were to write a song about Newt Gingrich, I can't imagine [it] being funny."[11a] Lehrer says he's "often reminded of the old Punch cartoon showing a dying patient forlornly asking the doctor at his bedside, 'Doctor, is there any hope?', to which the doctor replies 'No, why?'"[12] When he is asked to write on current subjects, Lehrer reports feeling like "a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava."[22]

Lehrer is not alone is his assessment of the changes in society. A number of authors have characterized the New Left as a time when the same college students who provided Lehrer his early audiences began looking at the world around them in a much more serious way. As noted in The Road to Vietnam "Students rediscovered a radical critique of American society," which would eventually lead them "into the forefront of the antiwar movement." As students became more radical, the sense of liberal consensus began to vanish. The same article notes that "reasons for opposing the war varied," and that "on the all-consuming issue of Vietnam, the Cold War consensus broke apart... and modern American liberalism went into sharp decline."[2] Pratt notes that the emerging new intelligentsia of the 60's was seeking music which "embodied highly romantic associations of a more honest and more personable, if mythical and utopian, rural folk culture."[17, p.121] One would be hard pressed to call Lehrer a utopian visionary. Author Timothy Scheurer explains that "the 1960s not only called forth the [American] myth, but forced an entire reexamination of American values."[21] A soul searching of this magnitude is not exactly conducive to Lehrer's brand of music.

Not that folk music itself was going into a decline. Scheurer goes on to detail how "by 1960, the musical establishment was completely transformed from what it had been a mere ten years earlier...[and] into the musical breach stepped the new folk revival." Indeed, says Sheurer, "the music of the folk revival proved to the perfect vehicle to express ... discontent." He observes the conscious shift in lyric writing on the part of the 60s era folk singers to target a "largely college-educated audience. Thus one finds flashes of hard-edged wit and irony in many of the songs."[21]

How is it, then, that there was no room for Lehrer in this new era? Perhaps the most important factor is that Lehrer's primary goal in song writing was always humor, not politics. "What I was doing then as a songwriter was not 'raising consciousness', or even preaching to the converted, but only titillating them,"[12] he says. Road To Vietnam notes that '60s music "set the tone for the era's political idealism"[2]; but serving as a movement leader was something that had never held any interest for Lehrer. On top of that, he feels that if he were to try delivering a strong political message, "it would be too easy to dismiss, and too easy to dismiss me. For example, religion, I firmly believe all religion is bullshit, but I don't think I would have gone and written a song expressing that, unless I could figure out a way to make it funny."[11a] And making things funny was something the new era was making harder and harder.

There was also a significant change in the music being employed by the New Left. According to Pratt, Dylan's blending of folk and rock "was overwhelming and form shattering throughout the 60s. By 1964 ... almost single handedly he nearly destroyed both the topical song and folk music revivals."[21] Lehrer's music had always been an important factor in his songs, providing a rich but unobtrusive background for lyrics. The shift towards electric instruments and a heavier rock sound could not have contributed much to Lehrer's songs. None the less, Lehrer did experiment with his music in 1960, arranging two songs for a full orchestra10 . This sound, however, was not what the 60s generation was looking for.

In short, the emergence of the New Left, which allowed for the success of the folk-protest song, effectively killed Lehrer's music. As the split between liberal and conservative became wider, the tension between the two sides increased, leaving little room for the cheerily humorous songs of Lehrer. And at the same, Lehrer was finding less and less to be humorous about. His brief dabbling in political cheerleading served only to increase Lehrer's conviction that it was time to move away from politics and song writing. "I worked for McCarthy in '68, and I certainly would not have voted for him. I would have voted for probably Kennedy, but Kennedy only came into the race after I had already done my dread work. But I did unfortunately meet Eugene McCarthy, that's one of things that decided me not to [vote for him]."[11a]

Tom Lehrer had all the ingredients necessary to become a leader of the political folksong movement. By the time the '60s rolled around, he was already "at the forefront of the 1950s vogue for political satire,"[7]11 and with a new album out and increased radio play time, he seemed poised for further success. But the upheavals of the New Left era deprived Lehrer of the one thing he needed to continue his song writing: humor.


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