Folk music hero Oscar Brand was 96 years old when he recorded the final episode of Folk Song Festival for public radio station WNYC for airing on Saturday, Sept. 24. Brand died of pneumonia two weeks later, content in the knowledge that he’d done what he loved right up to the end.
Oscar was the host of the Folk Song show for 70 years, and it eventually earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for “longest-airing radio show with the same host.” Over the decades of his light touch as host with his “casual mix of song, conversation and humor,” Brand showcased some of the greats of folk music, including Woody Guthrie and a young Bob Dylan. The song show audience even got to hear new Bob Dylan songs before anyone else!
Billboard wrote about Brand’s enormous contribution to the folk music world, remembering how much the “lanky, affable, gravelly-voiced” folk singer and songwriter loved to play and sing the songs with a guitar in hand as well as playing them on a record player for his listeners. It wasn’t unheard of for him to join Woody to sing some tunes wherever they found themselves, and he played Dylan’s songs with the folk icon too.
A longtime friend and manager said that Brand was a truly “a unique and extraordinary individual” who was talented in many areas. During his career, he was as comfortable interviewing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt or Kate Smith as he was strumming along with Guthrie in the bad part of town.
“I don’t know of another who could perform alongside Woody Guthrie in overalls among the poorest of the poor.”
Although never gaining the kind of fame that Dylan and Guthrie had, Oscar “recorded some 100 albums, wrote eight books, created TV shows, composed Broadway musicals and films.” Brand even wrote the campfire favorite, “On Top of Spaghetti.”
Canadian folkies will particularly remember the hugely popular Let’s Sing Out, the folk music television show that Oscar created and hosted. He brought brand new talent to the show and introduced “then-fledgling” singers like Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, and Harry Chapin to the 1960s folk audience.
Oscar had a special connection to Canada and the up and coming stars of Canadian folk. He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a prairie city just north of the North Dakota border, and later moved to the United States with his parents.
He was young enough to be swept up in the folk music revival of the 1940s, and was soon singing and “collaborating with Guthrie, Lead Belly, Josh White, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger,” while hosting stars like Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Judy Collins, and Joni Mitchell on his radio show.
The New York Times writes about the time Bob Dylan dropped by Oscar’s show and told a “riveting tale about his boyhood in a carnival” that was completely untrue, but fooled most of the listeners. On other occasions, Woody Guthrie would “burst in unexpectedly to try out a new song” for Oscar’s radio audience. Some decades later, Woody’s teenage son Arlo Guthrie “gave one of the earliest performances of his song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ on Mr. Brand’s show.”
Brand went on to score ballets for Agnes DeMille and compose Broadway musicals like A Joyful Noise, “wrote pop songs for Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald and others,” while continuing to share his love of folk music with his loyal listeners on Folk Song Festival week after week. Oscar was so devoted to the folk cause that he never accepted any payment for doing the show, and eventually won the “Peabody Award for more than 50 years in service to the music and messages of folk performers and fans around the world.”
Oscar leaves Karen, his wife of 46 years, their son, and three children from a previous marriage to mourn him. Keep on singing, Oscar Brand.
[Featured Image by McCarthy/Express/Getty Images]