Oscar Brand, Folk Singer Whose Radio Show Twanged for Decades, Dies at 96
By DOUGLAS MARTINOCT. 1, 2016
The folk singer and songwriter Oscar Brand in 2000. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Oscar Brand, the lanky, affable, gravelly-voiced folk singer and songwriter whose weekly on-air hootenanny was the longest-running radio show in history with a single host, died on Friday at his home in Great Neck, N.Y. He was 96.
Doug Yeager, Mr. Brand’s personal manager, said the cause was pneumonia.
In addition to performing and recording prolifically, Mr. Brand wrote books, articles and the scores for Broadway musicals and documentary films. He also hosted television shows. But it was his radio show, “Folksong Festival,” for which he was best known.
Every week for more than 70 years, with the easy, familiar voice of a friend, Mr. Brand invited listeners of the New York public radio station WNYC to his quirky, informal combination of American music symposium, barn dance, cracker-barrel conversation, songwriting session and verbal horseplay. Mr. Brand’s last show aired on Sept. 24, Mr. Yeager said.
Everyone who was anyone in folk music dropped by. Woody Guthrie — Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, as Mr. Brand called his rambling friend — was known to burst in unexpectedly to try out a new song. Bob Dylan told a riveting tale about his boyhood in a carnival, not a word of it true.
The music roamed hither and yon, and back again — from fiddlers to folk songs of the Appalachians to ethnic songs of the big cities. In the 1940s Mr. Brand played what were then known as “race records” by the likes of Memphis Minnie and Tampa Red, precursors of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll.
He also established his own one-of-a-kind reputation. In 1959, The New York Times called him “one of radio’s most genial fanatics.”
Mr. Brand posing for a publicity photo for radio station WNYC in New York. His radio show, “Folksong Festival,” debuted in December 1945. WNYC Archives
His radio career began in December 1945, after he wrote a letter to New York stations offering to present a program of Christmas songs he claimed most people had never heard. WNYC, which at the time was owned by the city, accepted the challenge. His song about Santa’s distinctive body odor proved his point.
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At the show’s end, WNYC’s program director asked Mr. Brand what he was doing the next week. He boldly replied that he’d be right back in the same studio in the Municipal Building.
So began what Guinness World Records eventually verified as radio’s longest-running show with a single host. (It beat out Alistair Cooke’s “Letter From America,” which ran for just under 58 years.)
Mr. Brand never had a contract, but he kept coming back. His employers particularly appreciated that he never asked for compensation — nor did he ever receive any.
His guests included the Weavers (who took their name from a listener’s suggestion), Lead Belly, Judy Collins, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Harry Chapin, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King and Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, who as a teenager gave one of the earliest performances of his song “Alice’s Restaurant” on Mr. Brand’s show.
In 1995, Mr. Brand won a Peabody Award for “more than 50 years in service to the music and messages of folk performers and fans around the world.”
Mr. Brand’s own singing voice had an offhand (and sometimes off-key) authenticity, which he applied to old, new and sometimes deliberately mangled songs, both on and off the air. He was also an accomplished songwriter. Doris Day’s version of his song “A Guy Is a Guy” reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1952.
Books and recordings by Mr. Brand, who also wrote scores for Broadway musicals and documentary films, and hosted television shows. Phil Marino for The New York Times
He scored ballets for Agnes de Mille and commercials for Log Cabin Syrup and Cheerios. He wrote music for documentary films, published songbooks and hosted the children’s television shows “The First Look” and “Spirit of ’76” as well as, from 1963 to 1967, the Canadian television series “Let’s Sing Out.”
He also wrote, with Paul Nassau, the music and lyrics for two shows that made it to Broadway, although neither had a long run: “A Joyful Noise” (1966) and “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1968), based on stories by Leo Rosten. He was curator of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and served on the advisory panel that helped develop “Sesame Street.”
He was born on Feb. 7, 1920, on a wheat farm near Winnipeg, Manitoba. His father was an interpreter to Indians for the Hudson’s Bay Company and later ran a theatrical supply company and a pawnshop.
Young Oscar fell in love with music while listening to player-piano rolls. His family moved to Minneapolis when he was 7, then to Chicago and finally to Brooklyn, where they sought treatment for Oscar, who had been born with a missing calf muscle.
He graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, then roamed the country with his banjo, working on farms along the way. He later graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in psychology.
In 1942 he joined the Army, where he worked in the psychology section of an induction center and edited a newspaper for psychiatric patients. After his discharge, he moved to Greenwich Village and tried to insinuate himself into the world of music. One of his first initiatives was writing a book called “How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me.”
Few have sung and strummed more prolifically. The hundreds of songs he recorded include election songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, drinking songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties about Nellie the Barmaid.
Mr. Brand appeared as himself in the 1965 film “Once Upon a Coffee House,” also known as “Hootenany a Go-Go.” Fred Berney Productions
Mr. Yeager, Mr. Brand’s manager for 40 years, described him “as one of the strongest, most indefatigable men I’ve ever known.”
“At 90 years old, I’d call and I’d say, ‘Oscar, where are you?’” According to Mr. Yeager, Mr. Brand replied, “‘I’m up in the tree, cutting some limbs.’”
Mr. Brand is survived by his wife of 46 years, Karen, with whom he had a son, Jordan; three other children, Jeannie, Eric and James, from a previous marriage that ended in divorce; and nine grandchildren.
In 1950 Mr. Brand was listed in “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television,” a pamphlet that contained the names of artists who supposedly had Communist connections. Unlike some of his colleagues, he was never asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (he insisted that he never would have cooperated if he had been), and while he did lose some work, he continued to make money from his songwriting.
He also invited blacklisted performers like Pete Seeger to be on his show, with no opposition from WNYC. He invited Burl Ives, too, even though he had alienated many of his fellow folk singers by naming names to the House committee. The singer Dave Van Ronk, in his autobiography, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” (2005), recalled taking Mr. Brand to task for this, only to be told, “Dave, we on the left do not blacklist” — a response that, Mr. Van Ronk recalled, “put me right in my place.”
A few years before Mr. Brand was targeted by “Red Channels,” he had been accused of playing Nazi music by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, whose third and last term was ending around the time Mr. Brand’s radio career was beginning. Called to the mayor’s office, Mr. Brand explained that the German songs he had played were actually centuries old.
As pleased as the mayor was to hear that Nazis had not infiltrated the municipal radio station, he was even more delighted to learn that Mr. Brand worked without pay.