Oscar Brand (Feb. 7, 1920 – Sept. 30, 2016): Folk Singer, Songwriter, Radio Host, Short Story Writer
July 31, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT
Does the tune Something to Sing About ring a bell?
The Canadian song propelled advocates to lobby Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Liberal government and Parliament in 1965 for the composition to become Canada’s national anthem. It didn’t happen.
Composed by Oscar Brand, Something to Sing About extolled Canada and became the premise for Let’s Sing Out, a weekly TV show hosted by Brand which launched on CTV in1963 and was broadcast later on CBC. It was the Canadian pavilion’s popular theme at Expo ’67.
Brand composed around 300 songs and released some 100 albums, many with Canadian and American patriotic lyrics, but was best known as a radio show host for an amazing 70 years.
The Guinness Book of World Records confirms he holds the radio show host longevity record, beginning on Dec. 10, 1945 and ending Sept. 24, 2016. His 10 p.m. Saturday fixture, Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival, ruled that slot for seven decades on New York City’s WNYC-AM 820. He never had a contract and wasn’t paid.
Of Romanian-Jewish heritage, Oscar was born in Winnipeg to Isadore and Beatrice Brand, and the clan lived on a wheat farm near the Manitoba city. His father was an Indigenous interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Co., ran a theatre supply company, then a pawnshop.
The clan moved to the U.S. in 1927, living in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York City. Residing in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, his parents sought medical treatment for Oscar, who was born with a missing calf muscle, according to Brand’s obituary in the New York Times.
After graduating from high school, he barnstormed the United States with his banjo, working on farms to pay his way. Returning home, he graduated with a psychology degree from Brooklyn College.
He joined the U.S. Army in 1942 as an induction centre psychologist and edited a newspaper for psychiatric patients. Following his discharge, he moved to the Greenwich Village music scene and wrote a book, How To Play the Guitar Better Than Me.
The music bug had bitten Brand at age seven because he loved listening to player-piano rolls. He was a creative sort who, growing up, wanted to be “on the radio.” He was hired by WYNC, a New York city-owned AM station, and never left.
His show was a coveted appearance for talented musicians like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Lead Belly, Harry Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger.
As a radio and stage performer, Brand’s gritty and sometimes off-key voice had believability.
He applied the voice “to old, new and sometimes deliberately mangled songs, both on and off the air,” the Times pronounced. “He was also an accomplished songwriter: Doris Day’s version of his song, A Guy Is A Guy reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1952.”
In 1959, Brand was one of the original organizers of the Newport Folk Festival. During the ‘60s he was on the Children’s Television Workshop Board advisory panel, helping to develop Sesame Street. A somewhat prickly advisor, it was rumoured that the Oscar the Grouch character was named after Brand.
Still in the ‘60s, he was a Mariposa Folk Festival mainstay, later in 1987 and at the Festival’s 50th Anniversary in 2010.
According to one profile, he scored ballets for Agnes de Mille and commercials for Log Cabin Syrup and Cheerios; wrote music for documentary films, published songbooks, short stories; and hosted the children’s television shows The First Look and Spirit of ’76.
As a budding radio jock at the University of Alberta’s radio station UACR in Calgary, I was taken with these performances. Brand’s Canadiana love-initiative revived the careers of folk music pioneers like the Womenfolk and the Weavers, and helped kick-start then little known musicians like Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.
Brand was a civil rights activist who participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. The House Committee on Un-American Activities branded his show a “pipeline of Communism because of his support for First Amendment rights for blacklisted artists to be allowed to have a platform to reach the public,” reported the New York Daily News. Even so, Brand, reportedly was anti-Stalinist and not a Communist Party member.
“Few have sung and strummed more prolifically,” his New York Times obit lauded. “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.”
Sadly, much of his and hundreds of other artists’ original masters and recordings were lost in a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008.
His numerous awards and honours included a 1995 Peabody Award for “more than 50 years in service to the music and messages of folk performers and fans around the world.”
Brand died at age 96, survived by his wife Karen, four children, and nine grandchildren.
David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary