I’m thinking of Tom Lehrer today for the strangest of reasons…

This morning, the plumber came to my new home to fix the sink. For some reason, his visit made me think of the following clip from the PBS classic kids’ show, The Electric Company

As a kid, I spent many hours watching The Electric Company. I’ve always been a reader and I love music, so that show was always very appealing to me. It turns out that Tom Lehrer, singer-songwriter, mathematician, pianist, and satirist extraordinaire, composed several songs for the old educational show that taught so many of my generation how to read. But besides teaching kids reading, Lehrer’s songs also taught math. He used music a lot to get his point across. Most of the time, his melodies were original compositions, though he did write a song called “The Elements” which used the melody for the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

“The Elements” by Tom Lehrer. I could have used this song when I was studying and barely passing chemistry in the 11th grade.

Of course, the songs Tom Lehrer wrote that affected me most were songs like “Silent E”…

and “LY”…

Even thirty-five years after I first heard these songs, they stick in my mind like highly tenacious earworms. I still enjoy them immensely, too. I’m sitting here smiling as I listen to Tom Lehrer singing so expressively. What a gift he has for teaching. My mind boggles when I think of how many people learned new things because of this man’s genius.

Why, he even made up a clever song for math students… another subject where I could have used some serious help back in the day…

I grew up in the era of “New Math”, but I don’t remember learning it. I have that in common with Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby’s famous dad character on The Cosby Show.

And to think I started on this topic because the plumber came by to fix the sink. As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with the sink. I thought we got no hot water down there and so did the plumber, at first. But it turns out it just takes forever for hot water to reach the kitchen.

Tom Lehrer is also known for black humor and wasn’t averse to tackling controversial subjects like religion.

Here he is singing his song, “The Vatican Rag”.

And he has always been a realist, coming up with some very clever lyrics for the aging. I can’t believe I’m now old enough to appreciate this song.

“When You Are Old And Gray”

I realize Tom Lehrer is not quite a current pop star, but I am certain that his music has influenced and inspired many current pop stars. Indeed, Randy Newman, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Dr. Demento have all cited Lehrer as a guy who inspired them in their work. And heaven knows that all three of the aforementioned have done great things for pop music and comedy. Though as a child of the 70s and 80s, I was listening to quite a lot of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s music– how could I miss “Eat it” and “Like A Surgeon”?– as an adult, I have come to really appreciate Randy Newman’s genius. Newman’s music is custom made for commercials, but he also wrote a funny musical version of Faust as well as countless songs for soundtracks. His own songs are often poignant or witty and call on a tremendous gift for twisting words and meanings to say things you’d never expect. It’s pretty cool to think that Randy Newman was as inspired by Tom Lehrer as so many school kids learning how to read were when they watched The Electric Company back in the day.

Tom Lehrer, so far as I know, is alive and kicking, though he hasn’t performed live in many years and has given up teaching. At age 85, I figure he’s earned a rest… Hope he’s not spending his time “Poisoning Pigeons In the Park”.

Have a nice weekend everyone.