Oscar Brand, a folk troubadour, raconteur, broadcaster and writer whose radio show “Folksong Festival” aired for 70 years and helped introduce then-unknown entertainers such as Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, died Sept. 30 at his home in Great Neck, N.Y. He was 96.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said his wife, Karen Brand.
Mr. Brand, who combined a lusty baritone with gentle guitar or banjo accompaniment, put his stamp on a broad spectrum of folk music, from the barroom risqué to the politically and socially significant. He also composed the jaunty “Something to Sing About,” also known as “This Land of Ours,” which is regarded as an unofficial national anthem of his native Canada.
He recorded more than 100 albums, many filled with campaign songs, drinking songs, college songs, protest songs, military songs and outlaw songs, and more than a few anatomically boastful sea shanties, running the gamut from the comically naughty to the comically lewd.
One of his particular fancies was the bawdy ballad, with song titles that reflected frisky couplings and bodily functions or malfunctions. He had a rare pop-chart success in 1952 when Doris Day recorded “A Guy Is a Guy,” Mr. Brand’s cleaned-up revamping of an old English tavern song about “a good girl” and an indecent young man.
In a career that spanned multiple media, Mr. Brand appeared in films, wrote songs for performers including Harry Belafonte and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, co-wrote Broadway musicals, hosted National Public Radio programs, curated the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York and participated in an advisory panel that created the public television series “Sesame Street.” He claimed to have been the namesake for Oscar the Grouch, the green, misanthropic Muppet who dwells in a garbage can.
Like his contemporary and friend Pete Seeger, Mr. Brand was a central figure in the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s but had been a proselytizer of the music before, and he would remain one long after.
His pulpit was “Folksong Festival,” which launched in 1945 on WNYC, the municipally owned radio station in New York that became an independent public radio outlet in 1997. Mr. Brand’s seven-decade run, every Saturday night at 10, earned him a place in the Guinness World Records book for longest-running weekly radio program with the same host.
“Folksong Festival” has offered a dais for nearly every significant and rising folk entertainer for more than three generations.
Mr. Brand brought in Huddie Ledbetter (known as Lead Belly), with whom he had toured in the late 1940s, Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo (who gave one of his first performances of “Alice’s Restaurant” on the program), Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Theodore Bikel, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Emmylou Harris, Suzanne Vega, John Denver, Baez and Dylan (who made his solo New York radio debut on the show).
“Folksong Festival” was also a rare venue for African folk music, including a performance by a Nigerian student vocal chorus in 1956, while that country was still under British colonial rule.
“Every folk singer who came to New York wanted to be on Oscar’s program,” acclaimed folk singer Jean Ritchie told Newsday in 2005. He also “lent money to the poor ones,” Ritchie said, adding that he put her on the show soon after her arrival from the Kentucky mountains.
By design, the program’s format was not polished. It was a hodgepodge of conversation and music and moved along at Mr. Brand’s easygoing pace.
“The guest would talk and sing until he got tired, and then I’d sing a few songs,” he told the New York Times in 1985. “Woody Guthrie might come in during a program and say he’d just written a song and wanted to sing it. I had a little studio back then, mostly banjo players — Pete Seeger or Fred Hellerman or Erik Darling, all of whom were eventually with the Weavers. In fact, the first time the Weavers appeared on my program, they were called the ‘No Name Quartet.’ ”
Mr. Brand won a Peabody Award in 1995 for his contributions to broadcasting. “Oscar Brand has provided more than an open microphone for the American folk music scene,” the citation read. “He has always strived to present music and artists who were considered politically unpopular, even seditious.”
“Folksong Festival” was open to any artist, many of them blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s, and Mr. Brand said he blocked many attempts by New York mayors to censor his programming choices.
He recalled that when he played centuries-old German lieder, he was confronted by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia for “singing Nazi songs on the air” at taxpayers’ expense. The mayor demanded to know how to respond to listener complaints.
“Tell them what I tell them,” Mr. Brand replied. “I don’t get paid.”
Tall, lean and bearing what one writer described as a “perpetual crescent-moon smile,” Oscar Brand was born on Feb. 7, 1920, on a wheat farm near Winnipeg, Manitoba. Seven years later, his parents settled in Brooklyn, where his father found work as a salesman.
The Brands moved to New York to seek better medical care for Oscar, who was born with one leg that was two inches shorter than the other. Doctors could not resolve the problem, and Mr. Brand used a special shoe.
A self-taught singer and banjoist, he spent part of his teen years roaming Greenwich Village, where he immersed himself in the Depression-era folk orbit that included Woody Guthrie and Seeger.
He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1942 with a psychology degree and fought for a place in the Army despite his leg impairment. He was assigned to the psychological section, conducting tests at induction stations and then editing a newspaper at a military hospital. He also led therapeutic folk-song sessions for hospital patients.
After his discharge, he landed a spot on WNYC in December 1945 when he intrigued the station manager by offering to sing Christmas songs “that nobody ever heard of.”
As a musical performer, Mr. Brand also toured with Josh White and Lead Belly, who were black. “I wasn’t a great singer,” he told the Boston Herald, “but they let me come along because I was white and I was able to buy them sandwiches and drinks. You couldn’t have whites and blacks in the same audience in those days.”
Mr. Brand said the financial windfall from the Day hit in 1952 helped him survive his brief show-business blacklisting after his name appeared in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels. He said he never joined the Communist Party or drank alcohol — both distinctions that raised suspicions among some in the folk world.
“The way I worked it out was I would buy their drinks,” he told the Daily News. “That convinced everyone I wasn’t passing judgment.”
Beyond his work at WNYC, he made TV commercials and collaborated on two 1960s Broadway musical flops, “A Joyful Noise” and “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.”
Mr. Brand performed at Carnegie Hall, among other venues, and released many popular albums in the 1950s and 1960s, including “Every Inch a Sailor” (a collection of Navy songs) and “Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads.” He wrote several books on folk music and played himself in the 1965 beatnik film comedy “Once Upon a Coffee House.”
Mr. Brand hosted a TV variety show in Canada in the 1960s, “Let’s Sing Out,” that helped catapult a young singer from Saskatchewan named Joan Anderson (later Joni Mitchell) to greater visibility.
In addition, Mr. Brand hosted performing arts shows for National Public Radio, including “Voices in the Wind” in the 1970s and “The Sunday Show” in the early 1980s.
In 1970, he married Karen Grossman. Besides his wife, of Great Neck, survivors include three children from a previous marriage, Jeannie DeRienzo of Kensington, Md., Eric Brand of Passaic, N.J., and James Brandon of Marietta, Ga.; a son from his marriage to Grossman, Jordan Brand of the San Francisco area; and nine grandchildren.
Whether Oscar the Grouch was really named for Mr. Brand is in dispute. According to Karen Falk, historian for the Jim Henson Company, the character was named after a notoriously unpleasant waiter or restaurant proprietor who once served “Sesame Street” creator Henson. That view is supported by Caroll Spinney, the actor who played the grumpy character and Big Bird.
Mr. Brand had a different version of events. He told the Chicago Tribune in 1998 that because the show was supposed to grab the attention of underprivileged inner-city children, he did not want its setting to be so sanitized as to be unrecognizable to them.
“I fought for sloppy city streets, fought for garbage cans on the front steps, and winos,” he said. When the final result fell short of his vision, he complained to anyone who would listen — not, he observed, unlike Oscar the Grouch.
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