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.

What I say about ‘Danny (Fields) Says’

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I’m very happy that Danny Says, a documentary on the life and times of Danny Fields that’s been in production for the last couple years, is finally coming out via Magnolia Pictures on Sept. 30. Based on attending an early screening, I can say it’s very good.

But it’s also missing my four hours of interviews-two of me, two of Seymour Stein that I did, though at least Seymour does get a few onscreen seconds. As the director has the tapes, I don’t know what I said verbatim. But I did say a few important things about Danny that no one else said-neither Seymour nor the stellar likes of Iggy Pop, Judy Collins, Jonathan Richman and Alice Cooper–so I’ll try to recapture them here the best I can.

I definitely recall my main point about Danny Fields, since it’s one I often use when I speak about him–which is often–and that is, there’s no telling what music of the last 50 years–from the mid-1960s on to this day–would be like without him. I mean, this guy had a hand in nearly every key music development post-Beatles–and even had a hand in The Beatles, too.

Indeed, Danny “is an expert arbiter of culture–music being his main focus,” Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, told me a couple years ago when I wrote about the library’s acquisition of truckloads of Danny’s papers–along with his vast collection of interviews and photographs, audio and video tapes, films and memorabilia.

“But we have to keep in mind that he has been writing all of his life. His articles for 16 Magazine deserve a close reading for how they promoted and shaped youth culture in the 1960s and 1970s. His several books detailing the lives of his friends–Linda McCartney, [Andy Warhol’s Bad star] Cyrinda Foxe–were the result of an amazing amount of research. His role in creating, promoting, and managing the public personas of The Ramones–one of the most influential rock groups of the 20th century–is a case study in how music culture operates.”

Yes, Danny discovered and managed The Ramones, for which he remains best-known to most people, probably. But long before that the Phi Beta Kappa Harvard law school dropout was deeply embedded in Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory scene in New York (he wrote the liner notes for the Velvet Underground’s Live At Max’s Kansas City and lived with Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick) prior to becoming publicity director at Elektra Records, where he worked with acts like The Doors, Nico and Judy Collins and managed The Stooges and MC5. He also worked with artists including Cream, Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, and if you ever get the chance to stroll through his West Village apartment hallway you’ll see a wall lined with his photos of a young Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Divine and many of the aforementioned.

And as Young noted, Danny played a not insignificant role in Beatles history—aside from being a close friend of Linda McCartney. He’s the one who published John Lennon’s infamous “We’re more popular than Jesus” quote (in the August, 1966 issue of Datebook).

Danny Says, of course, takes its name from the Ramones song on the band’s landmark Phil Spector-produced End of the Century album. But Danny is a true Renaissance man, with interests far beyond pop music.

“It’s odd to go from Shakespeare folios and 18th Century prayer books to posters of Dee Dee Ramone!” he told me, and now I’ll tell you what I’m sure I said in my interview: Danny can go from Shakespeare folios and 18th Century prayer books to posters of Dee Dee Ramone–and just about anything cultural, historical and intellectual you can think of. He and I actually go to the opera together, which is great for me on two counts: Not only do I get to spend quality time with him, but he actually knows opera and can explain to me what we’re seeing.

Of course, my close friendship with Danny Fields isn’t based on opera, but even though I wrote the first book on The Ramones (Ramones—An American Band) and thanked him in it and interviewed him at length, it isn’t based on The Ramones or punk rock, either—though I obviously knew his name from both.

No, when I first met Danny Fields—and I was so thrilled to meet him, knowing full well who he was—it was in, of all places, Nashville. To be precise, it was at a Warner Bros. Records party at some country club during what was then called CMA Week, in reference to the week of performing rights society banquets and other celebrations culminating with the Country Music Association Awards. Must have been 1984, because I was full-time at Cash Box magazine as retail editor, in New York only a year or two and hadn’t managed to break in as a freelancer anywhere—until that fateful night.

Two things stand out, over 30 years later. First, Conway Twitty was there! Second, so was Danny Fields! But what on earth was Danny doing at a country music event in Nashville?

What I didn’t know was that Danny, who was no longer managing The Ramones, was now editing a country music magazine called Country Rhythms—having famously edited 16 Magazine–and was starting up a magazine to capitalize on the new MTV craze, Rock Video. I was an avid MTV viewer at the time, but was ambivalent about the quality of rock videos–though extremely opinionated. So when Danny said he was starting up a magazine called Rock Video, I practically begged him to let me write for it, specifically, review rock videos.

He asked how I got to the party and I told him I drove there in a rental car. He said if I gave him a ride back to his hotel—and got him back safely—I could write for him and Rock Video.

Thank you, Avis.

I’m pretty sure I was the first writer to review rock videos. And Danny let me contribute to Country Rhythms, too, country music being, ironically, what brought us together in the first place.

So not only do I not know what popular music would be like without Danny Fields, I don’t know what my career writing about it would be like. And I’m absolutely sure I’m not the only writer who would say that, let alone musician, let alone Yale library curator.

“He teaches me something every time we meet,” said Young, “and I’m glad to have his papers here at Beinecke with those of Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, Robert Giard, Richard Neville, Ezra Pound and other talents who reshaped the way we see, read, and hear the world.”

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.