Corrections or additions?
This story by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on April 22, 1998. All rights reserved.
For New Audiences, An Old Folk Face
Folk festivals are the best," says 78-year-old
veteran folk singer, writer, producer, radio personality, and impresario
Oscar Brand. He’s one of the headliners at the 1998 New Jersey Folk
Festival at Rutgers University Saturday, April 25. "They’re family
things where you’re gonna hear stuff you wouldn’t hear otherwise.
You get to a folk festival, and you’re meeting new audiences,"
Introducing himself to new audiences has been the key to Brand’s long
career. He has written eight books, produced 70-odd music scores for
documentaries, recorded more than 90 albums, done script writing and
hosting for television, and spent 50 years of hosting "Oscar Brand’s
Folk Song Festival," a weekly radio show on public radio station
WNYC-AM in New York City. Brand began hosting his show — the longest
continuously running radio program in the U.S. — in December,
1945, three months after he got out of the U.S. Army. "To this
day," he says, "I don’t have a contract, I don’t get paid,
I just do my program."
Aside from being a place for Brand and his longtime friend and fellow
headliner Jean Ritchie to introduce themselves to new audiences, the
New Jersey Folk Festival is also a place for alumni to gather and
Organized by Angus Gillespie and the American Studies Department at
Rutgers University’s Douglass College, the festival is much more than
a gathering of alumni. Free and open to the public for 24 years, the
New Jersey Folk Festival is still evolving. In recent years, the music
stages have expanded from two to four, the food and crafts areas have
expanded, and so has the children’s area. Culture vultures and ethnic
food fanatics can walk from one craft demonstration to another, from
one stage to the next, from one food booth to the next, easily satisfying
their entertainment, educational, epicurean, and musical desires.
Gillespie tries to model his festival after the Smithsonian Festival
of American Folklife, held each summer on the mall in Washington,
D.C. And he does so with one one-hundredth of that festival’s budget.
His theme this year is Chinese-American folk traditions. With more
than a 100 ethnic groups represented in New Jersey, the festival could
conceivably continue into the year 2100 without ever repeating an
Oscar Brand was born in 1920 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where his father
was an interpreter for the Hudson Bay Company. Perhaps because Brand
was missing a muscle in his leg, his family moved to Minneapolis,
then to Chicago, and finally "to the center of the world, New
York City." The five-member Brand family arrived in 1930 when
Brand was 10, and he grew up on East 24th Street and in Brooklyn in
the 1930s. His father became a salesman and his mother went to work
at Klein’s On The Square.
"The kids on 24th Street were tough as nails and New York was
a wild, exotic place at that time," he recalls, "whereas Winnipeg
was much more structured and peaceful and quiet. In New York, there
was excitement all around and access to the subways. My father could
pick up any language, and 24th Street was a very polyglot neighborhood.
Later we moved to Brooklyn, even more of a polyglot neighborhood."
Before entering the Army in 1942, Brand attended Brooklyn College
and graduated that same year with a degree in psychology. In the Army,
he was a psychologist, and there he first picked up the banjo.
"As far as singing was concerned, I’ve been singing all of my
life," he says, noting his father played piano and a range of
woodwind instruments. His teenage years in Brooklyn before the advent
of television were marked by singing and fighting in the streets,
he says. "Mostly I remember singing patriotic, political and campaign
songs, and I’ll soon be recording an album of campaign songs for the
Smithsonian, some of which I first learned as a kid."
In the late 1930s, while still in college, Brand began traveling around
New York and making occasional trips to Canada. He would literally
sing for his supper along the way, stopping at hotels and bars to
earn spending money or — more importantly — food. He met Woody
Guthrie, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, Josh White, and Pete Seeger, and became
friendly with all of them. Thus began a professional folk singing
career that has lasted nearly six decades.
Asked what he does best, Brand says he writes. He writes songs —
he’s recorded dozens of theme-related albums, including albums of
campaign songs, bawdy songs, Air Force songs, sailing songs, car songs,
and golf songs. He’s also written scripts for radio, TV, documentary
films and books, and plays for Broadway.
"I was raised in a singing family so I did that automatically,"
he explains. He recalls he was about 19 when he first ran into Seeger,
who was chumming around with Guthrie. He remembers that when his mother
went to work at Klein’s, she helped start a union there, and was once
beaten at a union rally.
"It was tough times in those days for people trying to start unions,
or anybody who had liberal ideas," he says, "ideas that are
now so firmly ingrained in America — even among conservatives
— were then considered radical."
In his college days, he traveled as much as he could. "I would
meet people from all over the country who sang, they weren’t professionals,
but on my travels up to Canada and other places, I would meet these
people." This was before televisions took over the living rooms,
bars, laundromats, and every other place across America, he says.
In the 1940s in New York, he met Paul Robeson, whose "Song For
Americans" was one of several theme songs for the Republican National
Convention in 1944. By 1952 attitudes about Robeson, and his left-leaning
friends like Pete Seeger, author Richard Wright, Woody Guthrie, and
Brand himself had changed considerably.
Brand was among many prominent and not-so-prominent Americans whose
names were somehow associated with "Communist groups." By
1952, the process of "blacklisting" had gotten out of hand,
he recalls. But he was blacklisted by the Communists first.
"In 1948 they [the Communists] really came after me and said I
was on the Truman war bandwagon, because I sang songs on a TV program
for Truman and Norman Thomas, who was also running for President,
and that got them angry."
Later the FBI came and asked him questions about who
was and who wasn’t a member of the Communist party. "I told them
I couldn’t tell them, because only the people in the party knew, and
I wasn’t in the party. So after a few years of asking questions, they
stopped," he says. He found Robeson to be a wise and clever man,
"but very frustrated, that with all his power and the audiences
adoring him, he was not able to make a change in the relationship.
Don’t forget in those days, black people were not allowed to drink
at the same water fountains as white people."
In the early 1950s, Brand’s song, "A Guy Is A Guy," became
a big hit for Doris Day. There was a lot of money involved from royalties
for that one song, he recalls. "Meanwhile, all these poor guys
were being called by the House Un-American Activities Committee in
1952, and some of them were forced by lack of money and family considerations
to testify, but I didn’t."
"They asked me to testify that I was blacklisted by the Communist
Party, and I refused," he says. "Pete and I were friends and
I was not an active anti-Communist. I didn’t think they were all that
dangerous, at least not the ones I knew. It was a dumb and dangerous
time, the Russians had the atomic bomb, the American people did not
mind the blacklist, and it was basically Truman who started it, because
the Democratic party was attacked as soft on Communism and they had
to prove that they weren’t."
Since recording his first album in 1946, Brand has recorded over 90
others, for a wide variety of major and independent record companies,
including an album of songs for the fledgling Elektra Records. He
has also recorded for Riverside Records, ABC Paramount, Decca, Folkways,
and other labels. His two most recent recordings, the 1995 theme albums
"Get A Dog" and "We Love Cats," are for the Vermont-based
Although his schedule of live performances has slowed somewhat in
recent years, Brand says a recent highlight was the 1995 New York
gathering of folk singers in honor of the 50th anniversary of his
radio show. The concert included Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta,
and a host of other veteran folk and blues performers.
"They were performing, not because of me, but because of a radio
program that gave them a platform when they were young for people
to hear how good they were," he says.
Although Brand isn’t exactly young, he still has plenty of energy.
At the New Jersey Folk Festival he will present five programs, starting
with a ballads workshop at 10:30 a.m. He’s especially looking forward
to performing with Jean Ritchie, his closest friend.
Brand is no stranger to the Garden State; two of his sisters live
here and he’s been based, for many years, in nearby Great Neck, New
York. How does the 78-year-old Brand manage to stay so young and energetic?
"I’m fortunate, I come from a family that stays young a long time,
and also, my wife does my hair," he says, laughing. "But really,
there are a number of things that keep you feeling young, and one
is staying involved with the music of today. My one son is 19 and
he’s at Harvard. He has a band and plays bass. There’s a vitality
in today’s music that I find refreshing, and some of the songs I sing
are contemporary songs."
Given the fact that folk music isn’t one of the highest paying professions
around, how has Brand managed to stay solvent through a five decade
recording career? Royalties on a few good songs helped a lot, and
an album of songs about the Air Force did incredibly well, 350,000
copies sold, in the 1950s, he recalls.
"But also I was with NBC-TV for many years and I hosted a show
called `The First Look.’ Then for seven years I had a show at National
Public Radio called `Voices In The Wind.’ So I never stopped working.
That’s the key, just don’t retire!"
— Richard J. Skelly
Institute Grounds, George Street & Clifton Avenue, New Brunswick,
732-932-9174. Featured artists Oscar Brand and Jean Ritchie. Also
on the four stages are the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Chinese Folk
Dance Company, Orrin Star and the Sultans of String, the Jersey Blues
All Stars, Son Lewis, Greg Stier, Rick Ilowhite, the Golden Age Retrievers,
Harpers Bizarre, and Jugtown Mountain String Band. Also crafts, performers,
children’s events, and food. Free. Saturday, April 25, 10 a.m.
to 5:30 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.