Presidential campaigns have a tendency to bring out America’s nostalgic side. Candidates on both sides evoke some glorious past—whether a real era, or only the ideals represented by it—and hint that recapturing such glories can only be achieved by enacting their specific policies. Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan, for instance, represents an especially fevered and noxious version of this appeal, but he is tapping into that stream of nostalgia common to all politicians.
It’s a message that sells, even among those who should know better, so it’s good to have reminders that all American eras past have contained a mixture of good and bad—that no golden age has existed. This need makes the political satire of Tom Lehrer more welcome than ever, 50 years after he wrote his songs. Lehrer is not often considered as a political satirist, since his songs eschew parodies of specific events. In the end, though, that’s what has given them a lasting power well beyond the tunes of other would-be political satirists like the Capitol Steps and Mark Russell. Just like his melodies, which forego aping specific songs in favor of lampooning entire genres, Lehrer’s lyrics tackle the deep seated American political urge toward nostalgia.
Take one of his most devastating songs, “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie.” The song is a great example of one of Lehrer’s favored song structures: He starts with lyrics that seem innocent, even noble, but quickly weaves in more disturbing material.
The lyric “Old times there are not forgotten / Whuppin’ slaves and sellin’ cotton” is one of the most devastating reversals in all of pop music. Atop his cheerful plunking on the piano, Lehrer sets up trope after trope torn from visions of a Southern agrarian paradise, only to rip away the facade and expose the foundation of slavery on which that system existed. Many people through the years have fallen hard for the dazzling picture of the antebellum South as a haven for chivalry and adventure, while conveniently ignoring the horrific backdrop of slavery. “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie” forces a confrontation between blind nostalgia and reality.
Lehrer’s old-timey piano also dominates his song “My Home Town,” which finds him opining on the wonders of the little hamlet of his birth.
Once again, beneath every glittering image lies a dark reality. Whether it’s the girl next door who has been forced to turn to prostitution, or the math teacher hawking pornography after class, no one in Lehrer’s idyllic town lives up to the promise of their public lives, and by the end his narrator has taken a decidedly dark turn into the shadowy corners of suburbia. It’s become commonplace in recent years to subvert the ideal image of small towns, but Lehrer got there decades before Blue Velvet or Pleasantville.
Even when Lehrer focuses his ire on genres more than social situations, his wry eye takes aim at nostalgia. In “The Irish Ballad,” Lehrer crafts a morbid tale of mass murder but wraps it in the folksy trappings of ethnic music (his live version from Tom Lehrer Revisited includes an opening monolog that excoriates folk song fever).
The point of “The Irish Ballad,” like many of Lehrer’s songs, is that people will swallow any hideous garbage if you dress it up in a fancy suit (or in this case, an “authentic” folksy uniform). Even the song’s repeated nonsense line, “Rickety-tickety-tin,” emphasizes that the message matters less than the verve with which someone delivers it.
It’s unpleasant and chilling to be reminded that humans, like dogs, often respond to tone of voice much more than content. But in an election cycle that features a candidate like Trump, who has perfected the dog whistle approach of sounding the notes that will stir up his followers into a frenzy, it’s important to remind ourselves to resist the siren call of blinkered nostalgia, no matter who’s doing the singing. In that sense Tom Lehrer’s songs are also a comfort, in that they remind us that this struggle is not new, that people in every generation face a choice between rhetorical haze and clarity.