Today in History: April 9

I know it’s very bad form to quote one’s own reviews, but there is something the New York Times said about me [in 1958], that I have always treasured: “Mr. Lehrer’s muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.”—Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer is 88 today. From the late 1940s until the early 1960s, he was an in-demand nightclub performer whose droll and sometimes dark songs (“Pollution,” “We’ll All Go Together When We Go”) were sung cheerfully by an bespectacled man at a piano. He retired from performing live in the early 1960s, then wrote and sang satirical songs for television (“That Was the Week That Was”), then retired from performance altogether to become a math professor at UC Santa Cruz.

In 1971, PBS debuted a children’s television show called “The Electric Company,” and there a new generation (mine) learned about the alphabet and some of its many entanglements from droll cartoons illustrating concepts like the “silent E” accompanied by clever songs sung by a cheerful voice and piano. I did not know who Tom Lehrer was when I was 4, but I did know this song by heart (below the fold):

 
He joked that satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a joke that was taken seriously to mean that he had retired from music and comedy in protest. The simpler story was that he seemed to have simply preferred teaching college to the musician’s life on the road. His website, TomLehrer.org, carries this tagline on its front page: “… I went from adolescence to senility, trying to bypass maturity ….” Here is one more classic, “Wernher von Braun”:

 
* * * *
Phil Ochs died 40 years ago today. Willie Stargell died 15 years ago today. Sidney Lumet died five years ago today.

* * * *
Hugh Hefner is 90 today. Michael Learned is 77 today. Dennis Quaid is 62. Paulina Porizkova is 51 today. Cynthia Nixon is 50. Keshia Knight Pulliam is 37. Kristen Stewart is 26.

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