Remembering Oscar Brand

Photo from the Sam Teicher Collection for the Songwriters Hall of Fame

The SHOF was saddened to learn of the passing of one of our esteemed Founding Board Members, Oscar Brand.

Having joined the Songwriters Hall of Fame Board of Directors in the early years of it’s inception, Brand was responsible for creating the first SHOF Museum at One Times Square in 1980 which was a home for memorabilia and events until its closing in 1983.

Born on Feb. 7, 1920, on a wheat farm near Winnipeg, Manitoba. Young Oscar fell in love with music while listening to player-piano rolls. In 1927, the family moved to Minneapolis, then to Chicago and ultimately to New York City. As a young man, Oscar lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn, graduating from Erasmus Hall High School and later from Brooklyn College with a degree in psychology. He then roamed the country with his banjo, working on farms along the way.

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 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.

He combined a lusty baritone with gentle guitar or banjo accompaniment, putting his stamp on a broad spectrum of folk music, from the barroom risqué to the politically and socially significant. He also composed the jaunty “Something to Sing About,” also known as “This Land of Ours,” which is regarded as an unofficial national anthem of his native Canada.

He recorded more than 100 albums, many filled with campaign songs, drinking songs, college songs, protest songs, military songs and outlaw songs, and more than a few anatomically boastful sea shanties, running the gamut from the comically naughty to the comically lewd. One of his particular fancies was the bawdy ballad, with song titles that reflected frisky couplings and bodily functions or malfunctions. He had a pop-chart success in 1952 when Doris Day recorded “A Guy Is a Guy,” a cleaned-up revamping of an old English tavern song about “a good girl” and an indecent young man.

Brand is well known for having composed catchy, themed, folk songs, including the eponymous theme to his initially CTV and then CBC television show “Let’s Sing Out.” He was also a frequent performer at the Mariposa Folk Festival during this period, including performances in 1962, 1968, 1969, and 1987, as well as the 50th anniversary in 2010. He collaborated on a number of musicals, most notably The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (a musical version of Leo Rosten’s stories about the fictional Jewish character Hyman Kaplan), How to Steal an Election, and A Joyful Noise

He hosted the radio show Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival every Saturday at 10 p.m. on WNYC-AM 820 in New York City, which ran into in its 70th year. The show ran more or less continuously since its debut on December 10, 1945, making it the longest-running radio show with the same host, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Over its run it introduced such talents to the world as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and The Weavers. In order to make sure that his radio program could not be censored he refused to be paid by WNYC for the next 70 years. He closed every show with an invitation to come back, “next week, same time, same place, under the light of yon municipal moon.”

While Brand was not as well-known or radical an activist as some of his contemporaries, he was a long-standing supporter of civil rights. He told stories of buying food for Leadbelly when the two traveled together in segregated areas, and participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.

In the early 1960s, Brand brought his substantial connections in the worldwide folk music community home to his native Canada with his CTV and then CBC television program Let’s Sing Out. The program was staged at and broadcast from university campuses across Canada and both revived the careers of long-forgotten pioneers of the folk music movement such as Malvina Reynolds, the Womenfolk, The Weavers and others and introduced then-unknown Canadian singers such as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. His score for the 1968 Off-Broadway show, How to Steal An Election sent up the current belief that charisma would help a candidate win and the album cover was decorated with election buttons, including the 1968 Nixon campaign.

Brand also served during the 1960s as a board member of the Children’s Television Workshop and participated in the development of Sesame Street. Because of some mild disagreements that had occurred between Brand and the board members regarding the appropriate setting for the show, it has been reputed that as a playful joke, the character of Oscar the Grouch was named after him, although there are dueling tales as to the origin of the character. He told the Chicago Tribune in 1998 that because the show was supposed to grab the attention of underprivileged inner-city children, he did not want its setting to be so sanitized as to be unrecognizable to them. “I fought for sloppy city streets, fought for garbage cans on the front steps, and winos,” he said. When the final result fell short of his vision, he complained to anyone who would listen — not, he observed, unlike Oscar the Grouch.

Brand won his first Peabody Award in 1982 for the National Public Radio broadcast, The Sunday Show. Fifteen years later he shared the Personal Peabody Award with Oprah Winfrey.

On January 18, 2010, WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour celebrated Brand’s upcoming 90th birthday and the 65th anniversary of his radio career before an audience from Lexington, Kentucky, where host Michael Johnathan and guest Josh White, Jr. performed with Brand and talked with him about his life. On February 7, 2010, CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition celebrated Brand’s life on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Brand died of pneumonia on September 30, 2016, at the age of 96. He is survived by his wife Karen and and their son, along with three children from a previous marriage and grandchildren.