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.

Concert Highlights–Sandra Bernhard at Joe’s Pub, 12/31/2015

It was open-ended, but even Sandra Bernhard’s opening remark at her New Year’s Eve Joe’s Pub late show–the last of her annual year-end week-long run–was good for a hearty laugh: “As the years go on, you think, ‘Why?'”

The rest of the Sandyland gig–named for her new SiriusXM daily talk show–was the usual Sandyland roller coaster: a lot smoother than the first one on Dec. 26, but no less threatening in terms of going where no other performer dares.

“Be on your toes,” she cautioned. Not that she says stuff we’re all thinking—like they stupidly say of Trump—she says things you aren’t expecting, as she then urged, “Take the law in your own hands!” And who could expect that Sandy would then side with the NRA?

Face the facts, she said. There will never be gun control in this country. There was reason for guns in the old, Wild West, she explained, when all you had was bag of flour and a tin of lard. And now, all women need to carry a Lady Derringer in their purse, find a spot in the room where you can see everything, and “if you see someone sweaty and carrying a backpack, blow him away and slide out the back!”

(Editor’s note: She wasn’t seriously urging any of the above, but in this day and age, for everyone’s protection and to block any needless misinterpretation of Miss Bernhard’s humor–as has so often been the case by idiots in the past–let there be no mistake.)

(And no, there was nothing bigoted in her observation, in reference to her girlfriend, that “WASPs blow like a water main [whereas] we Jews release a little [pent-up anger and frustration] each day!”)

(And no, too, slight on plumbers or electricians in Sandy’s rant about the trauma of applying for college for her daughter–who even though we’ve never seen her, we’ve kind of watched grow up, what with her mom’s brief mentions over the years during these shows—and finally blurting, in reference to plumbing and wiring, “Get a skill, little lady!”)

As ever, deserving celebrities were skewered, with Taylor Swift this year taking the well-earned cake.

“Miss Swift, don’t swift-boat me, girl!” Sandy admonished in her “Sandyland Squad” bit, wherein she rattled off Swift’s girl squadettes with appropriate cracks (“It’s back to school time, Karlie Kloss!” and, in hushed voice, “There’s Lorde in the corner, writing a song”). Cut to, “‘You’re So Vain’ was about Warren Beatty after all? You’re about 80 years too late for that one, Carly. We no longer care!”

Turning around to celebrity friends, she observed, “You’re not a ‘lady of the canyon’ anymore, Joni [Mitchell]’ in relating a bit about driving with Michele Lee to visit Liza Minnelli in her new pad in the mountains in L.A., only to find spiders, Liza’s three schnauzers penned in outside, and Liza nowhere to be found inside. Surmising that Liza had probably gone into town for a meeting with management, Sandy wondered, “What about the schnauzers?”—thereby becoming the only one I’ve ever seen get a belly laugh uttering the word schnauzer.

Musically, Sandy performed the best version of “Me and Mrs. Jones” I’ve ever heard after noting that Tom Jones had recently appeared on Sandyland, long after she hysterically gave him near-head on her 1992 HBO special Sandra After Dark. By then it was near New Year.

“Fuck the countdown! Let’s have a meditation,” she said, and while it was very funny, she followed by expressing her sincere wish to make 2016 a better year–and her hope for greater thoughtfulness and patience. After her traditional mix of straight and punk rock versions of “Auld Lang Syne,” she declared, “It’s official: The holidays are over.”

But not the holiday sales.

“I slave for this shit!” Sandy said, after noting that she did’t have any corporate backing, and would come out to sign all merchandise after the show so long as the line kept moving.

“Just don’t tell me your life story!” she cautioned prospective cash-only buyers, having already instructed everyone that a cash machine was up the block at Walgreens, and that she didn’t care if anyone was mugged, beaten or bloodied on the way back from it.

(Editor’s note: She wasn’t serious here, either—at least about the getting bloodied part.)

She closed with a smart mashup of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Can You Feel It,” leaving listeners to head out into 2016 definitely unbloodied–and hopefully more thoughtful and patient.