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.The show is — by a lot — the longest running radio show with a single host.
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.
I saw Oscar Brand in concert once. It was at The Bottom Line in NYC, circa 1980. We were not interested in seeing him. We were there to see the headline act, someone we really cared about, perhaps Patti Smith. Someone in the punk/new wave genre that we loved at the time. We got there early and got the table right in front of the stage. Picture a table forming a T with a small, low stage. That's where we were — at the performer's feet.
I knew Oscar Brand was someone I was supposed to respect and honor, but the music was completely sincere old-school folk music — with gentle, comic stories in between. It was like "A Mighty Wind," but it wasn't a movie, and we were right in front of the man, where he could plainly see us.
He was telling his little stories, so that gave a place to laugh, but the stories were not funny enough to support the way that we desperately needed to laugh. We did not want to disrupt the performance or affect it or hurt his feelings in any way, but that only made it more insanely, hysterically funny. How do you let yourself laugh, but restrain yourself from laughing as uproariously as you need to laugh?
You might say it would be better not to start laughing at all. Laughing feeds on itself. But he could see us, and he was telling funny stories. We couldn't stare stony-faced. So we laughed, and we could see that he was enjoying receiving our laughter, which made it surreal and — unfortunately — even more provocative of the wrong kind of laughter.
You could see in his face that he believed in what he was doing and believed he was loved. These kids, these Baby Boomers, in the front row couldn't be receiving what he was giving in a different spirit from how he offered it, could they? We wanted him to think that, and we wanted to think that he did.
But perhaps we only saw his game face, and he totally knew where our heads were and how distant we were on that day, and he did what he had to do, what he always had to do — in good times or bad — continue the tradition of American folk music.