Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BRAND, Oscar

(b 7 February 1920, Winnipeg, Manitoba; d 30 September 2016, Great Neck NY). Folksinger, songwriter, broadcaster. He went to NYC; attended Brooklyn College, and was section chief of a psychology unit in US Army during WWII. He became coordinator of folk music for the municipal radio station WNYC in 1945, and was recognized in 2005 as the longest-serving host of a weekly radio show, Folksong Festival, at 60 years, unpaid and without a contract (after the first week he just kept showing up). Then he kept doing it for another ten years. As a near teetotaler, he was amused to be celebrated in the Guinness Book of Records, which sounds like a beer: hanging out in the old days with people like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, who liked to imbibe, they were suspicious at first until he bought them drinks.

In turn, Brand was suspicious of the Communist Party's interest in folk music, and made a speech in 1951 which cost him credibility on the folk scene. He had been fingered by Red Channels as a lefty, but was never called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a progressive who had no use for Joe Stalin, he was pressured by the U.S. government to join the Communist Party and become an informer. 'I told them no and the man said, "Okay, but don't you hang around with that Pete Seeger!"' During the McCarthy years Brand's show was the only place 'radicals' like Seeger could be broadcast, and the station always backed him up. Not long after his Folksong Festival went on the air in 1945, Brand ran into New York's Mayor LaGuardia, who said that people kept asking him 'how you can pay that guy to put those people on a city-owned station.' 'Tell them what I tell them,' replied Brand. 'I don't get paid.' LaGuardia also wanted to know why he had broadcast German songs during WWII, and was relieved to learn that the songs were centuries old. A bit later Brand was criticized by some when he had Burl Ives on his radio show, who had named names; when Dave Van Ronk asked him about that he said, 'Dave, we on the left do not blacklist.'   

Brand was best known to the man in the street for his several volumes on the Audio Fidelity label of Bawdy Songs And Backroom Ballads, plus Bawdy Western Songs, Bawdy College Songs, and Bawdy Sea Songs ('Let him climb the rigging like his daddy used to do'). They sound pretty tame now, but in the 1950s he could not broadcast his own best-known work. Other recordings included Stephen Foster songs with Judy Collins on Caedmon, The Americans with Kate Smith on Pickwick, a children's set called Come To The Party for the Children's Record Guild; others on Elektra, Riverside, ABC, and Roulette, about 80 albums in all. He was one of the first revivalists to mix traditional and new songs, and he continued broadening it: 'That's what I love about folk music. It's always changing, always being refurbished.'

He had credits in 75 films, made hundreds of TV appearances, was music director of an NBC-TV Sunday Show, adviser to the panel that created Sesame Street, and four years as host of the Canadian series Let's Sing Out, as well as his weekly radio show. His first book was called How To Play The Guitar Better Than I Can. He was the curator of the songwriters' Hall of Fame Museum in NYC; he compiled books and manuals of music; wrote songs for Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, the Smothers Brothers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He even made no. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1952, with Doris Day's recording of his 'A Guy Is A Guy', from a WWII ditty, 'A Gob Is A Slob', in turn based on a British song traced back to 1719, 'I Went To The Alehouse (A Knave Is A Knave)'. His scores for ballet and plays included the Kennedy Center's Bicentennial musical Sing America Sing. He can be said to have left a mark.

(The quotes here are from David Hinkley's article in the New York Daily News on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the radio show, and from Brand's New York Times obituary.)