Radio legend Oscar Brand still making waves


By Jane Flanagan

For much of his life, folk impresario Oscar Brand has never been far from a stringed instrument. A guitar or banjo has gotten him out of jams and opened up doors, including the one to his radio program on WNYC, “Folksong Festival.” Brand, 86, has been hosting the show for the past 61 years, and he is still heard every Saturday night at 10 p.m., which makes him the longest running radio host of a single program.

Sitting in his living room on a recent afternoon, surrounded by guitars — two at the foot of the fireplace, one in the portrait hanging above him — Brand insisted that his relationship to the instrument was actually a thin one.

“I’m not a musician at all,” said Brand, who, because has no formal musical training, doesn’t consider himself a particularly gifted guitar player.

Still, it’s an odd comment from a man who has recorded more than 100 albums — everything from children’s songs, to bawdy ballads, to barroom songs and historical campaign tunes. On his radio program, where Bob Dylan made his radio debut, Brand has strummed and sung along with such legendaries as Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

Brand has barely missed a week on the air, despite never earning a dime from the show. To pay the bills over the past six decades, he’s produced and/or hosted radio and television programs on NBC and CBS, has written over 300 songs, many for documentaries and feature films as well as TV, including his biggest commercial song, “A Guy is a Guy,” recorded by Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald. He also co-wrote the music and lyrics for two Broadway productions and has published over a dozen books.

In listening to Brand, it’s clear that his ultimate allegiance is to the song. Writing and singing songs for Brand is about telling stories — everything from the environment to war and nuclear proliferation. Although he’s Canadian by birth, he has a deep interest in American history and has produced an album on campaign songs for every president from George Washington to Bill Clinton.

Tall, slim, with a head of reddish hair, Brand evokes the image of a long distance runner. He moves easily, despite a recent hip replacement, a skill perhaps developed in childhood. He was born with a missing calf muscle in his right leg, which caused his foot to swing outward, forcing him to walk in an L-shape. It was this leg that first brought him to New York.

Determined to find the best doctor for their third and youngest child, Brand’s parents kept making cross-country train trips from their home in Winnepeg, Canada, down through the Dakotas, heading east to New York City. Brand’s earliest memory is staying up all night watching the landscape as they crossed the border. It made him a life-long lover of train travel.

Though he appears to walk normally now, the problem was never really fixed — today he compensates by wearing a special shoe. The problem did, however, bring one of America’s best known folk singer/songwriters to New York. Refusing to give up on his leg, Brand’s parents immigrated to New York City to be near what they considered to be the best medical care. The family settled in Chelsea. It was quite an abrupt change for Brand, a boy who suddenly found himself playing stick ball and dealing with street gangs. But it made him a New Yorker, and it was here, just two subway stops south that he would become famous.

Just how Brand ended up on WNYC is an odd tale. Enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, he found himself in basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, detailed to latrine duty. To escape this fate, he decided to pass himself off as a musician so he could join the band. At the time, however, the only thing he could play was the kazoo. He got a weekend pass home, borrowed a banjo and spent 25 cents on a book, “How to Play the Banjo in 10 Easy Lessons.”

“When I showed up with the banjo, the band leader took one look and said, ‘What the hell is that? You can’t play a Goddamned banjo in a military band’,” Brand recalled. So he was given cymbals instead. “I could keep time like anybody,” he said with a smile.

Out of the Army, Brand came to New York looking for work, but no one was hiring. He showed up at WNYC one December day, offering to sing Christmas songs “that nobody ever heard of,” he said. He went on the air, was invited back the next week and has been returning ever since.

He then taught himself the guitar and started giving lessons. “The way I play, anyone can play it,” said Brand, who eventually wrote his own book, “How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me.”

Brand, who has been singing since he was four years old, believes that anyone can learn to play any instrument as well as sing. “All children do this, I just never stopped. It’s planted too deep,” he said.

As a young married man after the war, Brand moved to 300 West 12th St., and a few years later, to 208 W. 11th St. By the 1960s he had three children, but it became clear that his marriage was not viable. He got custody of the children and was faced with the dilemma of how to both financially support them and run the household. His older two children were in school, but he couldn’t find a spot for his youngest, a preschooler. If he couldn’t get him in school, he couldn’t work. His last stop was the Nazareth Nursery School, still located on W. 15th St., where he met the welcoming face of a kind nun. He’ll never forget the moment she agreed to take the boy and accept whatever Brand could pay. Thinking about it over 40 years later still brings tears to his eyes.

Brand loved living in Greenwich Village.

“The Village was a little fortress of talented people at war with the world. It was a busy little village. You knew your neighbors. You would say hello to everyone and ‘what are you working on?’ Everyone was working on a play, a painting, sculpture or a new book.”

It was during the McCarthy era that he would especially appreciate living there.

“The Village had no blacklist,” said Brand, who had the distinction of being ostracized by both the House UnAmerican Committee (HUAC) and the Communist Party. While it seems hard to believe now, at the time, fervent American Communists refused to accept that Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was committing atrocities. Brand could not abide this, and although he had many friends in the party, he was banned from meetings. HUAC, meanwhile, used the opportunity to try to enlist him in their efforts to blacklist communist artists.

“Everyday the phone would ring,” said Brand. It was HUAC calling trying to get him to testify, even if it meant lying, he said.

So he was listed in something called, “Red Channels,” HUAC’s bible of blacklisted artists and soon all his paying work dried up.

Fortunately, his hit song “A Guy is a Guy” brought in royalties and he was able to get by. Thinking about it now he wonders what he would have done if he didn’t have the royalties, whether he would have been tempted to cooperate. “No,” he laughed, “but I wouldn’t have been so cocky about it.”

Today, Brand lives in Great Neck, Long Island, where he records “Folksong Festival” at a nearby station. He has been married to his wife Karen, for 37 years, and his devotion to her is palpable. She helped raise his three children, and they have a son together, Jordan, a physician and amateur bass player who occasionally performs with his father. Brand now has many grandchildren and their pictures line the shelves of his living room — along with LP’s from the past 60 years. Down in the basement are recordings on “rolls” dating to the 1880s. Brand himself now accounts for six decades of folk music history; his guitar-playing skills aside, it’s one hell of a legacy.