Tom Lehrer: for The Electric Company and otherwise

Those of you who grew up in the USA in the 70s and had a television more than likely know some of these songs:

A decent number of these are permanently burned into my mental harddrive and have been recovered, over the last few years, as Charlie and I have made our way through DVD reissues of The Electric Company. Of course as a kid I hadn’t made the connection that they were all written — and many of them performed — by the same songwriter, Tom Lehrer. They were just part of The Electric Company‘s vibe, the way the songs of Joe Raposo were a defining feature of Sesame Street and also a cornerstone of my musical sensibility. So imagine my delight when I found out that Lehrer and Raposo were college roommates at Harvard. Although Lehrer had enjoyed some success as a satirical songwriter and performer in the 1950s and 60s, by the 70s he had settled down to teach math at UC-Santa Cruz. But Raposo, who directed music for both The Electric Company and Sesame Street in their early seasons, apparently recruited Lehrer to write for the show. When I think of other times and places where I’d like to have lived and worked, I often think about New York in the 70s. But forget CBGB: I’d have wanted to hang with Henson and Oz and these guys at Children’s Television Workshop.

The idea of linking up showtune/vaudeville/American Songbook structures with educational purposes wasn’t a new thing for Lehrer. He’d already done this (which I’m dedicating here to Farrell Fawcett) while he was still an undergrad:


If this is floating your boat, here’s a full set performed in Copenhagen (why Copenhagen?! And why do they clap like that?) in 1967, featuring several political songs of darker bent, befitting the times:

CTW knew how to pick them. That’s for sure. Want more? Here’s an AV Club interview from 2000, when he was 72.

6 responses to “Tom Lehrer: for The Electric Company and otherwise”

  1. Dave says:

    Amazing — I had no idea those Electric Company songs were by Tom Lehrer. Very cool.

    I’d probably have to go with the crowd pleaser “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” as my favorite TL. Apparently the animated Electric Company version never made it on the air.

  2. Josh K-sky says:

    Hah! I didn’t know that either — hadn’t ever revisited TEC, although I got turned on to Lehrer in high school. So Long Mom, The Vatican Rag, The Elements (here’s Harry Potter’s version), and of course the intro to Alma: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years.”

  3. Josh K-sky says:

    Via Wikipedia’s Lehrer page, Dope Peddler. His offer of permission to use the sample is entertaining.

  4. GF says:

    A friend in college used to irritate the rest of the voice department by showing up to recitals in a pink dress with a pink parasol and singing “Poisoning Pigeons.” It was pretty delightful. She put it on her doctoral recital and listed it in the program merely as “A Song of Spring.”

  5. T-Mo says:

    I, too, never knew that Lehrer was employed by the CTW. The Electric Company seemed to me as a child like the cooler cousin of Sesame Street. Perhaps Lehrer is one of the reasons why. I loved the Denmark concert! So amazing to see him doing these songs in such a staid context, so like a recital.

    One wonders, Bryan, when you’ll be writing up a piece about Zoom.

  6. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Wow, Bryan, I’m so flattered to be mentioned at all in an essay about such a musical genius. I can only assume it’s b/c I once told you that the periodic table is the closest thing to a secular version of scripture I’ve ever ever encountered. I have a framed copy of it that I hang on my wall with the same pride that others hang a photo of Jesus or Mohammad or Joseph Smith. I also have a t-shirt, of the periodic table. Of course. The idea of organizing the physical world into such logical seemingly scrutable categories still deeply moves me. Long live the periodic table. (If only my childhood had taught me a way to sing (and memorize) the periodic table instead of the retarded books of the old testament. alas. You can’t have it all, can you?)