Oscar Brand, Folk Singer and Radio Host, Dies at 96

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Oscar Brand at WNYC in an undated photo

Oscar Brand at WNYC in an undated photo

Oscar Brand died from pneumonia at his home in Great Neck, N.Y., on September 30, at the age of 96. Brand‘s career stretched back some seven decades, during which, according to the biography on his web page, he served as “a folk singer, recording artist, songwriter, guitarist, bawdy song balladeer, sea chantey performer, radio broadcaster, television program host, special events director, emcee, Broadway musical composer, playwright, actor, author, storyteller, musicologist, historian, children’s recording artist, curator of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and honorary Ph.D. He was also on the panel that created Sesame Street.”

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on February 7, 1920, Brand moved with his family to Minnesota, then Chicago and eventually Brooklyn. Beginning in the 1940s, after his discharge from the Army and a move to Greenwich Village, he recorded nearly 100 albums, composed hundreds of songs and hosted the longest-running radio show in the country continuously helmed by one person: Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival, which aired every Saturday at 10 p.m. on WNYC-AM 820 in New York City. The show debuted on December 10, 1945, and ended just a week ago.

Most of the folk music greats of the past 70 years appeared on the show, including Woody Guthrie and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (as well as blues greats such as B.B. King). Brand was never paid for his radio shows—his sole purpose for returning week after week, he said, was for the love of the music.

Related: Fred Hellerman, last of the Weavers, dies

Oscar Brand (center) with Judy Collins and Gordon Lightfoot in the '60s (Photo from Brand's website)

Oscar Brand (center) with Judy Collins and Gordon Lightfoot in the ’60s (Photo from Brand’s website)

Brand received a Peabody Award in 1995 for “more than 50 years in service to the music and messages of folk performers and fans around the world.”

As a folk singer, Brand was one of the last remaining ties to the golden era of the genre—he was a contemporary of, and played with, Guthrie, Lead Belly and the Weavers, among many hundreds of others. He wrote songs about politics and animals, sea chanteys and Christmas, cars and sports, as well as drinking songs, civil rights and patriotic anthems, Broadway show tunes, TV themes, commercials and much else. One of Brand’s compositions, “A Guy Is a Guy,” reached #1 in 1952 on the Billboard chart—as recorded by Doris Day. Brand himself never made the charts under his own name, although he recorded albums from 1948 through the 2000s.

He also wrote books on folk song, including the four-volume Bawdy Songs & Backroom Ballads. He appeared at countless folk festivals and was one of the original organizers of the famed Newport Folk Festival.

In the ’60s, brand served as a board member of the Children’s Television Workshop and was instrumental in the development of Sesame Street. In fact, it is said that the character of Oscar the Grouch was named after him. What better legacy could one leave?

Watch Oscar Brand sing with Carly and Lucy Simon in 1965

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Jeff Tamarkin

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