In the international folk music world, no name resonates more than that of Oscar Brand. Oscar was one of the most celebrated folk artists internationally, deeply respected in a variety of artistic circles. He wrote for Broadway and film, recorded over 80 folk albums, hosted television shows in both Canada and the United States, penned books, and was outspoken on critical social issues. In addition, he was folk music’s eminence grise, held in the highest esteem as the foremost authority on folk music. Indeed, he was often called to court to provide historical background and provenance in music copyright cases. He also wrote one of Canada’s greatest folk songs, “Something to Sing About (This Land of Ours)”, a hit for Canadian folk group The Travellers. He even composed a #1 pop hit single in 1952, “A Guy Is a Guy”, for Doris Day.
Born February 7, 1920 to a Jewish family who lived just over the CPR tracks in Winnipeg’s ethnically diverse North End, Brand recalled, “I grew up on Lusted Avenue with a big open field at the end of it back then. It was an exciting time. I can remember horses on the street. Lusted, to me, was a perfect picture of Canada.” His father, an early settler in the Portage la Prairie area, was a linguist employed by the CPR to greet newly-arrived immigrants. “He knew all the languages. At age 14 he started as a translator for Aboriginals. He’d learn their languages. The Hudson’s Bay Company hired him. He led an interesting life.” Brand’s extended family was equally colourful. “One of my relatives was an ice carrier, another was a smuggler.”
The family moved to Minneapolis before ending up in New York. “I bounced back and forth between Canada and the States but I always thought of Winnipeg as my home,” he boasted. Brand graduated from Brooklyn University in 1942 with a degree in psychology (“I couldn’t get into a college in Canada,” he notes, citing challenges to Jews in Canadian universities at the time) and served as a psychologist in the US army during World War II assessing the suitability of young men for combat duty.
Following the war, Oscar joined New York’s WNYC radio where he hosted Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival for a record 71 years, the longest running show with a single host according to the Guinness Book of World Records. In eulogizing Oscar, The New York Times wrote, “Every week for more than 70 years, with the easy, familiar voice of a friend, Mr. Brand invited listeners of the New York public radio station WNYC to his quirky, informal combination of American music symposium, barn dance, cracker-barrel conversation, songwriting session and verbal horseplay. Everyone who was anyone in folk music dropped by. Woody Guthrie — Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, as Mr. Brand called his rambling friend — was known to burst in unexpectedly to try out a new song. Bob Dylan told a riveting tale about his boyhood in a carnival, not a word of it true.” The show scooped up two Peabody Awards along the way.
“Every folk singer who came to New York wanted to be on Oscar’s program,” folksinger Jean Ritchie told Newsday in 2005. Over the years, guests included a who’s who of the folk music community including the Weavers with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Harry Chapin, Odetta, Theodore Bikel, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Suzanne Vega, John Denver, and Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, who gave one of the earliest performances of Alice’s Restaurant on Folksong Festival. Bob Dylan made his radio debut on Brand’s show shortly after arriving in New York from Minnesota in 1961.
Besides Doris Day, Oscar’s songs were recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, and the Smothers Brothers. In addition, he wrote commercials for Maxwell House coffee, Log Cabin Syrup, Cheerios and Oldsmobile among others. He even published the music book How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me.
He composed the music for two Broadway musicals, A Joyful Noise starring John Raitt (father of singer Bonnie Raitt) and The Education of Hyman Kaplan featuring Hal Linden and Tom Bosley. He scored ballets for Agnes de Mille, wrote music for documentary films, hosted the children’s television shows The First Look and Spirit of ’76 and composed the music for the 1968 off-Broadway production How to Steal an Election.
Beginning in 1963, Oscar hosted the popular Canadian television show Let’s Sing Out for six years where he often showcased Canadian talent. A young Joan Anderson made her television debut on an episode of the show filmed at the University of Manitoba where she duetted with Oscar on a traditional Elizabethan folk number. She would, of course, change her name to Joni Mitchell and enjoy worldwide fame.
On his death in 2016, The Observer headline read, “Rest in Peace Oscar Brand, The Man Who Built the Foundation for Modern Folk Music.” The article went on to state, “Oscar Brand may not have been the face of folk music, as, say, Seeger or Dylan were, but he was the rock upon which the church was built. Through his radio shows, his songs, his concerts, his TV shows and his documentaries, Oscar Brand did more to build the framework for modern folk music than any man on our continent.” In 2011, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honoured Oscar with their Artistic Achievement Award.
A little-known fact is that Oscar Brand was a member of the original Children’s Television Workshop committee that created Sesame Street. “I was on the original board,” he explained to me a few years back from his home in Great Neck, New York, “and I was so fastidious about everything that I gave people a hard time so they named the grumpy character Oscar the Grouch after me.”