1702 Remembering Oscar Brand
So an old man you might never have heard of has died of pneumonia. It happens every day. When we spoke over the past summer, he sounded a little creaky. But at 96, you expect that. And he replied instantly that I was sounding a little creaky myself even though wet behind the ears and decades his junior.
Oscar Brand, a Midwest Canadian with a Brooklyn upbringing and a New York education… who recorded a zillion albums. Who recorded his radio show in his living room, first on 12th Street, then on 14th… and later at a suburban house of the kind he would regularly mock. Oscar was an imp. A tall imp, but an imp nonetheless.
That radio show on WNYC? It was the longest running program with a single host in the history of the medium. Seventy years. Oh, recently, he played a lot of records instead of live performers. But in the beginning, everyone gathered in those living rooms to pick and commit attempted singing. Later, Oscar would edit the tapes and hand carry them to the Municipal Building downtown for broadcast.
A small and devoted audience. Most of us who listened also sang and played on it. Brand wrote so many songs, he lost count. Bawdy songs. Political songs. Work songs. Parodies of spirituals. Parodies of parodies. Songs about the weather and the news. Songs about war. Songs for peace. Songs about history. All with grace and good humor.
He played guitar -- marginally -- and sang with enthusiasm. Once he said of his earliest days “I listened to my recordings and I couldn’t believe how bad I was.” He wasn’t. He had that wink-wink charm, the look that went with it and could put over a song with the best of them. Because he was with the best of them.
His stuff kind of snuck up on you. Did he really say that?? He was Howard Stern-lite long before Howard Stern was born. A pioneer of getting away with murder in that low-key Manitoba-comes-to-Midtown way. His lyrics were graceful in an inelegant way or were they elegant in an awkward way? Or both.
No show off, he. Except that second apartment’s living room had flocked red wall paper and lawn furniture. No one was going to fall asleep on the “couch.” The Chaise? That was a different story. The house on Baker Hill Road, on the less prosperous side of Great Neck NY, was relatively sedate.
As was the lifestyle in later years. Not that he had been a party boy. Funny guys on stage and on the air tend to be serious people when the microphone is off. The Herald Tribune’s Art Buchwald said you could always spot the humor columnist in the newsroom… he was the guy scowling at his typewriter while everyone else joked around.
Oscar was serious about things he believed important. Human rights at ground level, the right to organize, corporate dumbness, wars, famines, plagues and broken doorbells.
We once compared the number of different union cards he carried. He won.
The titans of the New York City Folk Scare have been dropping off the planet in recent years. Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert, Jean Ritchie along with some opening act types -- Lionel Kilberg and Eric Darling to name two -- all gone.
Some advice: if you have a friend who has lived for almost a century, make the final call before the final call.
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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