That Was the Album That Was

It was only a matter of time before I wrote about Tom Lehrer.

I grew up on Tom Lehrer, perhaps the most important musical satirist of the 1950s and 1960s. I memorized just about every single song he bothered to put on an LP before I reached the age of 12.

This includes “New Math.”

As I was growing up I wore out more than a few cassette dubs in the tape player of our family’s violently violet 1992 Dodge minivan. My dad first turned me on to Lehrer, so I always knew he was old.

These days, I hear Lehrer’s songs and think less “old” and more “historical.” As a history teacher, that blends a heck of a lot better.

Lehrer’s 1965 album That Was The Year That Was has perhaps his most infamous songs, and this album is the one with the most infamous backstory: Each song was adapted from a major news story of the day.

More than half of them work seamlessly in the classroom, and a whopping five of those could be used in units about the Cold War.

“National Brotherhood Week” covers the Civil Rights Movement, “George Murphy” and “Whatever Became of Hubert?” are nothing if not national politics through song, “The Folk Song Army” encapsulates the hippie protests of the ’60s, and “Smut” — my favorite — is all about the Supreme Court protecting the First-Amendment freedom of non-obscene pornography.

Boomers might remember this album, and I’m here to make them feel old: It came out in 1965. That makes it history, these days.

I love satire in the classroom, and I would be remiss if I didn’t use this classic satire.

Moral of the story? If the subject is dry, play it up for a laugh — it takes the edge off.

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  1. Have you heard of Stan Freberg’s History of the US? It’d be right up your alley. I’m listening to it right now, in fact.

    (http://www.amazon.com/Freberg-Presents-United-States-America/dp/B0000033TV

  2. I’ve heard of it, and I’ve been meaning to pick it up, but I haven’t listened to it just yet. I’m a big fan of what I’ve heard of Freberg through the Dr. Demento show.

    Historically speaking — and I am no historian — how accurate does it seem? There’s going to be silliness, but is the tone of the silliness more like obvious fabrication or is it more like Washington-had-wooden-teeth-made-from-a-cherry-tree?

    My own recommendation: There’s always The Daily Show’s America: The Audiobook. I’m planning on using parts of it in class, but I’d only use parts because there’s so much cussing in it.

    I don’t think I’ll have that problem with Freberg.

  3. n1quigley

    Ah but inaccuracies still hold value. For example, the schoolhouse rock on women’s suffrage mentions at one point that no women could vote prior to the nineteenth amendment, which of course is incorrect. But, it’s still goofy and memorable, and the discussion afterwards provides reinforcement of what’s important, especially since the error is fairly subtle.

  4. I’m worried about innacuracies mostly because I don’t trust myself to spot all of them. Remember: I’m not a history major.

    Once I do spot them, there’s no problem, though.




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