October 1, 2016

After 70 years doing one radio show — "Folksong Festival" — Oscar Brand has died at the age of 96.

He started that show in 1945:
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.

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.
The show is — by a lot — the longest running radio show with a single host.

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.


Hagar said...

"Songs for Sportscar Drivers and Other Big Wheels."

Jeff Gee said...

Oscar's version of "Blinded by Turds" has always been a fave.

Wince said...

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.

Don't you think he just believed you were smokin' that wacky-tobaky?

Curious George said...

Damn! I was going to tune in. Oh well. At least I have that golf date with Arnie next week.

Oso Negro said...

Did you mean punk/New Wave?

Ann Althouse said...

"Did you mean punk/New Wave?"




Rob said...

Thirty years later, if you were that ironic, you'd have been magically transported to Brooklyn.

MayBee said...

Never underestimate the ability of an older performer to imagine himself having sex with the young pretty girl at his concert.

Hagar said...

Correct title: "Sportscar Songs for Big Wheels."
(It's been 55 years!)

jimbino said...

I sure wore out my copy of his "Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads" album.

Johanna Lapp said...

Four weeks after I arrived in the States, I recognized a distinctive voice on the D train and asked the passenger across the aisle, "Pardon me, sir, but are you Oscar Brand?" He was indeed.

My parents somehow collected all of his LPs (in Zimbabwe!) and played them endlessly. I knew his songs better than Sinatra's, Seeger's or Woody Guthrie's.

Saw him on a quadruple bill hootenanny at Symphony Space at 96th and Broadway later that year. I was 13, probbably the youngest person in the audience by 30 years.

His double CD of presidential campaign songs, with the stories behind them, helped me ace high school American History.

Johanna Lapp said...

A tribute broadcast tonight at 8pm Eastern on WNYC. Streaming on the net. https://www.wnyc.org/story/remembering-oscar-brand/

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

I detest story-telling folk singers. Actually, the same goes for any musical style, but the phenomenon seems to exist mostly in folk music. If the songs don't work without the between-song patter/explanations/justifications, maybe the songs are worth singing.

Johanna Lapp said...

Sometimes the song itself teaches all the history you need to know.

Sometimes the punchline of a great traditional song depends on one sentence of history that young kids (or new immigrants) just don't know.

The folk tradition is about including everyone.

But a song built on a metaphor that requires a three-minute explanation for 99% of the audience is, indeed, a bad song.

Marc said...

Was catching up at the 'Guido Fawkes' site (politics & nonsense in the UK) just now where I saw that a commenter on the weekly 'Friday Caption Contest' post yesterday supplied a YouTube video of a song called The Good Ship Venus, recorded by Loudon Wainwright III, and, in a different version, earlier, by Oscar Brand-- and I thought of the Wainwright and Brand posts here today. I won't link to either video but the lyrics are amusing in parts and obscene in parts. Requiescant in pace.

Bilwick said...

Brand used to host a Saturday morning show geared for kids but not at all like a regular kids' show. Because of my interest in American history, I used to watch it even though I was in my early teens. Each episode took a chapter from American history and Brand would sing folk songs from that period or event. I liked the show and I liked his singing.