From the Vault Dept.: When Oscar Brand died in 2016, at the age of 96, he had achieved the distinction of being the single (and singular) host of the longest-running radio program: “Folksong Festival,” which aired on WNYC for over 70 years and gave early exposure to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and many others. Brand was a protean singer-songwriter, and the fact that he recorded an impressive number of wonderfully rude songs more than makes up his authorship of the lyrics to Doris Day’s hit “A Guy Is a Guy,” one of the most loathsome songs of the 1950s, which is saying something. Brand made several Caffe Lena appearances; here’s my review of one from 1987.
OSCAR BRAND IS NOT a larger-than-life performer.
The reason: he’s exactly the same size as life. He accommodates it, slipping through its ironies with his own playful grin, singing of its melancholy, saluting its splendor.
He’s been doing it for more than a few years now, in the company of notables like Ledbelly and Woody Guthrie, and he’s got a repertory of songs and stories to prove it.
Brand’s two long sets at Lena’s started out to give us “an outline of the music of America,” as he announced, veering off that track a few times as particular fancies struck him.
“The version you first learn of a song is the one you like the best,” he announced, introducing a ribald saga titled “No Hips at All.” But Brand makes a specialty of presenting several versions, all shapes and sizes, of songs we think we know well. If he (and the audience) didn’t have so much fun doing so, you’d almost think you were getting an education. Assisting Brand was a young guitarist named John Foley who played all the tough licks and joined in on choruses. He showed dynamic fingerwork, but more importantly he was able to counter Brand’s nonstop adlibs with his own quiet humor. And what a legacy he is making himself heir to!
Despite the astonishing array of material Brand comes up with, you get the feeling that he hasn’t scratched the surface of his repertory. During the course of this one night, he gave us “My Old Man,” a song he wrote for the Smothers Brothers, his own updated rewrite of Sheldon Harnick’s “Merry Minuet,” a couple of Erie Canal songs, a beautiful rendition of “The Riddle Song,” two Tom Paxton satires, more originals in “Touch the Earth” and “Does Anyone Remember the Horse,” the last a tribute to Harry Chapin, whose “Cat’s in the Cradle” he also performed.
He gave us a medley of country songs he wrote that went nowhere, runts of the litter that nestled together delightfully, then switched gears slightly for the poignant Vietnam vet tribute, “No Yellow Ribbons.”
Did you know that the Mary Hopkin hit “Those Were the Days” was penned by a Columbia University professor of architecture? I didn’t until this concert, when Brand delivered the funny saga of the song’s history. And, of course, he sang the song.
There was an extended tribute to Hudie Ledbetter in the form of Brand’s recollection of the famous Lincoln’s Birthday broadcast in which Norman Corwin put Ledbelly on the air for a 30-minute segment that included everything but Lincoln: “Goodnight Irene,” “Cotton
Fields,” “Rock Island Line” and others.
And he’ll stop in mid-song to tell a pertinent story, always with a showman’s flair. Thus, a sketch of the history of what’s popularly known as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was as much narrative as song, with versions ranging from Sojourner Truth’s “Father Abraham Has Spoken” to the popular classroom version that includes the rhyme-line “Teacher Hit Me with a Ruler” to the bawdy “Maryanne McCarty.”
Even the most spontaneous sets were constructed with a seasoned hand, mixing the comic and tender, frantic and slow with a good sense of pacing.
Many songs later, the concert closed with a tribute to Woody Guthrie, highlighted by “The Reuben James,” a history of the song “Red Wing” that eventually was Woody-ized into “Union Maid,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” complete with the more revolutionary verses that, in these xenophobic times, we too often forget to sing.
– Schenectady Gazette, 16 February 1987