Oscar Brand–An appreciation

Oscar Brand, one of folk music’s great luminaries, died Sept 30 at 96.

He was “a national treasure,” per folk music authority Stephanie P. Ledgin.

“Oscar Brand has left an enormous number of accomplishments in music, television and beyond that will entertain and educate for many years to come,” says Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “He was warm, funny, engaging, abundantly generous in his talents. It was truly an honor to have known and worked with him.”

Ledgin’s connection with Brand came during the latter part of a remarkable 70-year career dating back to the 1940s. His Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show, which aired every Saturday on New York’s WNYC-AM, extended into its 70th year after its launch in December, 1945. On it he introduced the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Lead Belly, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, all the while refusing payment so as to avoid being censored.

A two-time Peabody Award winner, Brand was a most prolific musician himself, and after his Army service during World War II moved to Greenwich Village and wrote a book How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me. He eventually recorded hundreds of campaign songs, drinking songs, college songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, protest songs, military songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties, filling over 100 albums. Doris Day charted in 1952 with his “A Guy Is a Guy,” and his “Something to Sing About”—also known as “This Land of Ours”—became the unofficial national anthem of his native Canada.

Additionally, Brand hosted the Canadian TV show Let’s Sing Out (in which he featured such folk music pioneers as Malvina Reynolds, The Womenfolk and The Weavers, and introduced then unknown Canadian singers like Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot) and collaborated on musicals including The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.

Brand participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches, and was a board member in the ‘60s of the Children’s Television Workshop, for which he helped develop Sesame Street. He joined the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) board of directors in the early years of the organization and was responsible for creating the first SHOF Museum, then located at One Times Square in 1980.

On behalf of SHOF, president/CEO Linda Moran expressed gratitude for Brand’s “invaluable contributions,” adding, “he will always be remembered fondly by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him.”

Moran further notes the many years that Brand served as the organization’s curator—and that he remained an active board member up until 2014.

“On a personal level, Oscar was a handsome, charming, witty, brilliant gentleman, and I will always fondly remember him for the support and guidance he gave me in my role as president of the SHOF,” says Moran.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations focus on 1970s and beyond

It’s been 10 years at least since I and a number of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee members were let go, ostensibly, the form email firing us said, to bring in younger ones more conversant in 1970s rock. Then a couple years ago there was a final bloodletting ridding the committee of virtually all nominators—many of whom had been on since the RockHall’s launch—who had any knowledge of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when rock ‘n’ roll really was rock ‘n’ roll.

Well, with today’s announcement of the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, the turnover is pretty much complete. First time nominees Pearl Jam and Tupac Shakur, both in their first year of eligibility, are most certainly shoo-ins, with the other 17 nominees also coming mainly from the ‘70s and after.

Looking at the nominees from my g-g-generation, I’m happy to see The Zombies back on the list—one of the few ‘60s artists who sound just as good today as they did 50 years ago, when they broke artistic ground in the British Invasion. The MC5 are back, too, and also deserve to go in—though neither are no-brainers for RockHall voters with fading memories or who are just too young to remember. Other pre-‘70s nominees are first-timers Steppenwolf and Joan Baez—both deserving but likely too far back in the past, and five-time nominee Joe Tex, who will likely have to wait at least for his sixth.

The two other ‘80s acts—Jane’s Addiction and Depeche Mode–are both first-timers, and thanks to short-term memories would seem to have a good shot at going in unless Pearl Jam and Tupac cancel them out. That leaves 10 nominees—all from the ‘70s–which it’s been determined that I know little about, no matter that I wrote the first book on The Ramones.

Starting with punk/new wave, then, first-time nominee Bad Brains are worthy, but probably too obscure for a more mainstream electorate, who might prefer The Cars, back with their second nomination. On the R&B tip, I just don’t feel it for Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan (both second-timers), though disco’s Chic, with their record-setting 11th nomination, just might turn the trick this time, if only to put them out of their misery—plus Nile Rodgers and his late Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards just went into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Chicago went in last year, which may bode well for the softer ‘70s rock of Yes, now on its third nomination, and first timers Journey and Electric Light Orchestra, with ELO getting the nod here on merit.

The final two nominees—Kraftwerk and J. Geils Band—are significant, for sure, but probably also limited in the glitz factor that is now such a major part of awards recognition, even by what should be such a credible organization as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But credibility, as everyone knows, disappeared from the RockHall long ago.

Fred Hellerman–An appreciation

Vocalist/guitarist Fred Hellerman, a founding member of The Weavers who died Sept. 1 at 89, was the last surviving original member of the historic quartet, which formed a vital link between the folk music revival of the 1950s–which emerged out of the labor movement–and the peace-oriented folk revival of the `60s.

“As a founding member of the Weavers, Fred Hellerman’s place in American folk and pop music is secure,” notes music historian John Alexander. “While the other original members–Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and of course Pete Seeger–are more well-known, Hellerman’s contributions cannot be minimized. It’s a magical blending of all four voices that made songs like ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘On Top of Old Smokey,’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ come alive and embed themselves in our memories.”

“And let’s not forget that Hellerman produced Arlo Guthrie’s classic Alice’s Restaurant, one of the most defining albums of the ’60s,” adds Alexander.

The Weavers also introduced songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Midnight Special,” “The Sloop John B,” “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” “This Land is Your Land,” “Wimoweh,” “House of the Rising Sun” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” into American popular culture. They paved the way for generations of important musicians including the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

“The music of the Weavers, for which Fred Hellerman was best known, continues to resonate not just within the folk music community, but globally, pertinent to social issues that remain at our core every day,” says Stephanie P. Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “I was never fortunate to meet Hellerman, but was thrilled to attend the 1980 Carnegie Hall Reunion.”

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, Seeger and Hays were identified as Communist Party members, with Seeger judged guilty of contempt for refusing to testify—though his conviction was later overturned. But The Weavers were no longer allowed to perform on TV or radio, and were dropped by their label. Denied airplay and the ability to record, and with their concerts besieged by right-wing protesters, they were essentially forced to disband in 1952.

The Weavers did reunite for a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1952, and a recording of the show was released in 1957. The group continued to perform after Seeger, who had established a successful solo career, left in 1958; they split up for good in 1964, though the original foursome got together occasionally through 1980, when their last full performance was the Carnegie Hall concert attended by Ledgin.

“We are very saddened to learn of the passing of influential folk music vocalist, guitarist, and producer Fred Hellerman,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. “A 2006 recipient of The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award with the iconic group the Weavers, Fred and his bandmates were best-known for performing timeless versions of American folk standards such as ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘If I Had A Hammer,’ and ‘On Top Of Old Smoky.’ Their musical talents, and commitment to social activism, were a strong influence on the folk music revival of the 1960s. We have lost a true innovator.”

Concert Highlights: Judy Collins, 1/2/2015

There’s nothing like seeing anything with Danny Fields, but especially something that he was intimately involved in—which doesn’t much narrow it down.

Case in point: Judy Collins. Danny was so much a part of her career when he was working at Elektra in the 1960s and she was a roster artist that she’s in the forthcoming Danny documentary Danny Says. When I found out on Dec 30 from her concert opener Ari Hest—in the Fab Faux’s dressing room at City Winery following the band’s dead-on performance of Danny’s favorite Beatles’ album Rubber Soul in its entirety—I brought him with me to see her Jan. 2 at City Winery.

Due to hot saki and two electronic pot hits, I’m afraid I took worse notes than usual. Hence, this account will likely be especially incoherent and meandering. About all I can say with certainty is that Judy Collins remains a national treasure, along with Linda Ronstadt one of our two broadest interpreters of popular song. That said, I can also say that she opened with “Open the Door,” one of her most beautiful original songs and sentiments (“I’d like to be as good a friend to you as you are to me”).

We sat at a table with a couple in town from Chicago. The wife had first seen Judy in 1969. Judy, meanwhile, looked out at Varick Street from the City Winery stage facing it, and recalled coming to New York herself from Denver and playing Gerdes Folk City in 1961—and wondered if anyone in the audiience was even alive then, besides, that is, me and Danny.

“Everybody was there–Joan [Baez] and Mimi [Farina, Baez’s sister]. Even Cisco Houston, who had only a couple months to live. Peter, Paul and Mary, before they were Peter, Paul and Mary. And a guy at the bar who was so pathetic, singing old Woody Guthrie songs—and not the best ones. I thought he was sad, that he didn’t have any repertoire. That was Bob Dylan. And I thought it was wonderful that they all came to see me and then I found out that my opener was a 13 year old named Arlo.”

Judy sang something that had to have been so beautiful, because the Chicago wife was weeping openly afterwards and saying something to Danny. I really wanted to let her know who Danny is—or at least direct her to this fab piece I wrote a few months ago!—but I knew Danny would modestly shrug it off.

Judy was now noting that Marcia, her grade school friend from Denver whom she’d known for 63 years, was in the audience, that they’d been in a group in the ‘50s called The Little Reds, assuring the audience that in those days, “[Little Reds] meant nothing political.” She mentioned meeting up with Leonard Cohen’s singer-songwriter son Adam while touring Australia. “You’d be proud of me for not telling him I put him through school,” she said, and indeed, Leonard Cohen was one of many budding or otherwise then unknown songwriters she championed throughout her career.

Me? I was unusually jumpy, maybe because of the weed, maybe because Danny had explained to the Chicagoans that we hadn’t paid for the seat at our table that we let the wife have because we were VIPs. Whatever, something went to my head, and when it became clear that the waitress had forgotten my second whiskey, I pointedly, perhaps arrogantly, gestured at her from across the room. She rushed over with it and apologized. I waved her off and downed it like the VIP Danny said we were.

Judy was talking about her early music influences—the old folk song ballad “Barbara Allen,” via Jo Stafford (me and Danny nodded at each other and made referece to Stafford’s hit “Shrimp Boats”), and of course, The Highwaymen’s “Gypsy Rover.”

I’ve heard her sing “Gypsy Rover” many times. But I also got to hear The Highwaymen sing it, a few years ago when the four then-surviving members of the original quintet regrouped and performed at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the listing and read the blurb. I didn’t think it was possible that The Highwaymen—the early ‘60s folk group who arguably recorded the definitive baby boomer versions of “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)” (which actually topped the pop charts in 1960), “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Cotton Fields” and “The Gypsy Rover”—were still together, let alone still alive. Yet there they were, doing 20-minute sets for talent buyers in little showcase rooms at the hotel.

I was blown away. I was eight when “Michael” came out, and here I was speaking with lead singer Steve Fisher, who had formed the group with four other Wesleyan freshmen in 1958. I told him how I always loved to hear Judy Collins sing it in concert, and he said that they’d never met her, but were about to open a show for her and that they were so excited about it they didn’t know what to say. I also told him how I often found myself (and still do) singing the plaintive “Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-do-dah-day/Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-day-dee” chorus on the street, even in the shower at the gym (not recommended). He laughed.

Sadly, Dave died in 2010, and was followed in 2011 by Bob Burnett and Gil Robbins (Tim Robbins’ father, who had joined the group in 1962). That leaves only Steve Trott and Steve Butts of the original five, Chan Daniels having died in 1975. I relate all this here because meeting them and hearing them was like meeting Odetta, many of whose songs they also popularized. And when Judy sang the “Gypsy Rover” chorus a cappella at City Winery, I chimed in with everyone else, this time without embarrassment.

And then it was back to Bob Dylan. She joked about hearing the forthcoming Dylan Shadows in the Night album of Sinatra songs, which she’s apparently not too impressed with. But acknowledging that “he changed our lives forever,” she said, before leading the SRO crowd in “Tambourine Man” (which she recorded after being present when he wrote it): “He can sing Rogers and Hammerstein if he wants. He can do anything he wants.”

Yeah, well he can’t do Sondheim. Judy can and did: three Sondheims ending with “Send in the Clowns” (the other two are lost to incapacitation). And she could have done any number of other writers—Webb, Weill and Robin Williamson, to start with “W.”

Not to mention Ari Hest! He came up to sing his excellent song “The Fire Plays,” with Judy accompanying him beautifully–after a gushing intro thanking him for joining her on a trip to perform at some castle in Ireland (like anyone wouldn’t? Shit, I’d have carried her guitar!).

Just remembered! She kicked off her shoes for an encore at the piano after starting it and then discovering she could get “a better grip on the pedal” without them. Otherwise her longtime piano/vocal accompanist Russell Walden was wonderful as ever. They did a stunning version of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” and it made me wish she’d do a whole album with Richard Thompson

Danny was thrilled that she encored with “In My Life” from Rubber Soul (also the titletrack of her 1966 breakthrough album) and then she finished traditionally with “Amazing Grace.” Now I had tears in my eyes, which, when closed, melted the decades back to that night at Gerdes in 1961.