If there's something to do with music that Oscar Brand
hasn't done already, don't tell him - he'll probably make
it his next project. Brand is probably best known for his
association with folk music, especially as the host of the
radio show Folk Music Festival on WNYC-AM - quite possibly
the longest-running show on radio (it went on the air in 1945
and is still going strong, every Saturday night at 10 p.m.).
Brand is also a songwriter and a performer himself, as well
as a writer (books, TV shows, Broadway musicals, you name
it). He is curator of the Songwriters Hall of Fame (www.songwritershalloffame.org)
and was on the advisory panel that created "Sesame Street."
Grin without a Cat's Editor-in-Chief Adam Blair wanted to
know what makes a folk song a folk song; he found that out,
and a lot more.
GRIN WITHOUT A CAT: In your book The Ballad Mongers,
you give a definition of what you consider a folk song. How
did that come about? How do you define folk music?
OSCAR BRAND: I'll just tell you how it began. I was
asked to do that book, because I had a radio show, to do some
material based upon some of the things I did on the air. I
thought this was my opportunity to really do a book of some
quality, even though it would be a tremendous amount of work,
and I thought there was not going to be much recompense. But
I wanted to do it, and I told that to the publisher, and the
publisher said all right, I'll give you an editor. They gave
me a guy who knew nothing whatsoever about folk music - neither
folk nor music. He was a very nice man but of very little
use. The one thing he did say, however, and it was very important,
was that the first chapter of the book should be about folk
music, because nobody knows what we're talking about. So I
started working on it. A year later, a full year later, and
I was working on a lot, it turned out that I had a definition
that was acceptable to me and to many of my friends.
My idea was very very simple. I started by looking at the
general definition of folk music of the International Folk
Music Council. Their definition was a little mossy and wormy.
It was good for antiquarians but not for people who were trying
to understand what we - people who were singing and listening
to folk music - were doing. Their definition was that a folk
song had to be a great number of years old, and that it had
to have been molded and changed by time into the marvelous
statue that it is today. The second part of their definition
was that the author of the original was to be lost in the
eons of time. And their third part was that it should meet
the demand of the community. This community lived on a cloud
in never-never land, no one had ever seen it or talked to
it or heard of it, but it was very important. It usually consisted
of a hard-handed, redneck farmer, who would sing while he
was plowing or bringing in the sheaves, whatever was necessary.
As far as I was concerned, that definition wasn't suitable
- many of the people I knew [in the folk song community] were
college students, and members of the Supreme Court, and children
and labor people, union people making up new words for a new
fight and the new jobs. And as far as the length of time since
the song was composed, I tried to get an exact date. Was it
25 years, 50 years, 100 years, maybe 200? 700? There were
many who believed that 400 to 500 years was very important,
anything less than that was a recent pop song. And that the
name of the composer shouldn't be known - I know a number
of songs where I know the name of the person who wrote the
I wrote in the "Saturday Review" pretty much what
I've just been saying, whereupon I was attacked by the keeper
of the archive at the Library of Congress, who said, in essence,
"Nobody believes that any more." It was likely that
he didn't, and the people he knew closely and members of the
folk music community didn't. But I was talking to a general
public, and I knew that most of them - and to this day many
have that impression - that a folk song has to be ancient,
with an unknown author, etc., and that anything else that
they're getting is pop stuff.
After the year, I came up with the definition I was comfortable
with. To put it in a general, egocentric way, anything I think
is a folk song is a folk song.
GRIN: So you became the authority.
BRAND: Well no, because I didn't push my authority.
Authority usually has an agenda, I had no agenda, this was
just for me. I was thinking, what would I put on a program
called Folk Song Festival, which began on the air in 1945
[and is still on WNYC-AM radio, Saturday nights at 10 p.m.;
visit www.wnyc.org for more
information]. And it's possible that my eclectic approach,
and my feeling that folk music goes different places when
it's driven by different people, enabled me to meet a lot
of audience needs, and my own.
The real definition was that if it sound like a folk song,
that's fine with me. One of the greatest experts in the business
had really had that in mind. Alan Lomax, a very good friend
with whom I worked for many years, helped me with my radio
show by bringing people from strange places to the microphone.
He acquainted the audience with the fact that the folk song
had gone further than Carnegie Hall or Town Hall or coffeehouses,
that it had been existing, and was existing, and was very
strong in all the small areas and big areas of the country.
In fact what many pundits had sneered at - the political
folk song, the union folk song, the poor man's folk song -
was actually very very strong, had always been very strong,
and it didn't take 200 to 300 years to make it into a perfect
GRIN: Let me ask you about the political or community
nature of folk songs and folk singing. Has that always been
a part of folk songs? Has it been part of it in the U.S.?
BRAND: My belief is very simple - that the artist
looks for an audience. The audience is the people around him
who are willing to pay, or just to listen and enjoy it.
In every community, there are people who sing. There are
singers who know the constructs of the community, the needs
and requirements of the community, and as a consequence are
able to meet those needs and requirements. Necessarily, that
means the borrowing of older songs, with a few changes here
and there. It's very much like the sculptor who is asked how
he did the beautiful sculpture, and he said I just cut away
the things that weren't the sculpture. That's what happened
- the changes, the chopping away and chipping away of things
that don't make much difference in that community, changes
the song. Because one community or another has many many changes.
I was with Woody Guthrie when he was writing some of his
great songs. I didn't get in his way, which was to my advantage
- I should be applauded for such a thing.
For example, his song "God Blessed America for Me,"
had originally been taken by the Carter Family from an old
hymn that was very popular. The Carter Family rewrote it to
be "My Darling, Do Not Leave Me." Woody took it
because he saw it could be made into another song, and he
wrote words that made fun of Irving Berlin's "God Bless
In the squares of the city
In the shadow of the steeple
[In] the relief office
I saw my people
They stood there hungry
I started singing
God Blessed America for me
Then later he changed it to "This Land Was Made for
You and Me." By the time Woody had it, it was a folk
song. You might say, he wrote his folk song - a folk
song which has become an American anthem - and which in fact
is used all over the world.
So the community has a need, and it's met via the folk singer.
This need means changing and rewriting, because some of the
words are not current terms, some of the ideas are ancient,
some of the stories are agricultural, and in an area we don't
understand. In fact for city people, factory or union songs
are not exactly clear, but if you tell them about computers,
or you sing it with explanations, it makes a big difference.
The changes are always there, and the community is satisfied,
whichever community it is. But the important thing is, folk
music didn't suddenly appear in the 1950s and 60s, it didn't
suddenly disappear in the 1970s or 80s. Folk music is there,
it stays, it is a mark of every civilization or un-civilization,
and will not die out because a few billion dollars is not
being spent on some singer.
GRIN: You've also written about, and recorded a CD
of, Presidential campaign songs. What role have the songs
that are either written for or chosen by the candidates played
in these campaigns? Are these songs still a potent force,
with all the other media that candidates have at their disposal?
BRAND: It's my belief that nobody is writing campaign
songs the way they used to. And it's true, they're not, because
the world has changed. If you don't change with the world,
you're not much of a folk singer. In the earliest days, people
were writing songs, usually parodies that were easy for the
audience, and their adherents, to sing. These songs are being
sung all the time, today - even the old songs are very popular
- they are very moving old ballads.
In rural areas, they used to believe that the things [described
in folk songs] happened right around the corner. Barbara Allen
died of love around the corner, or in the hollow, or two blocks
away, or two towns away. Nowadays we know better than that,
that when we sing about these people that we're talking about
something that happened 300 or 400 years ago. Nevertheless,
we're happy to sing it, because the characteristics of the
song are a very strong bond to the people who are listening
to it. It's a feeling by those people that they're hearing
something that is deep within the myth, deep within society,
deep within the mind of the people around him. The singer
realizes that the closer he can get to the feelings that were
evoked in the earliest days, the better he is at presenting
the story. And that's happening today as well.
As far as the campaign song, thousands were written in this
country, thousands upon thousands. In every town, in every
corner, someone would write out the words very carefully on
what they call a broadside. At the top it would say "To
the tune of
" There are songs that to this day are
"To the tune of
". The tune of "The Star-Spangled
Banner" was actually an early drinking song, "To
Anacreon in Heaven." Some of these songs are really still
active today. Like Methuselah, they ain't never going to die
- 900 years is a pittance, a small length of time for these
things, especially melodies. So "to the tune of"
tells the audience exactly how the words are to be sung.
When I was doing my book on the American Revolution, Songs
of '76, these songs were difficult to trace. First, there
were so many different versions. Everybody had a way of changing
it for his candidate or his situation, or for the vision of
the party he was supporting. You would find battles of the
broadsides, battles between one song and another. When I did
the book back in 1972, I had to cut and change lines that
were completely attached to their century, because nobody
today would understand. Also they would say "to the tune
of," which may have been known in 1775, but by 1972 "the
tune of" was gone, or had changed so much it didn't even
fit the words any more. My work was to present the picture
of the song to the music, and yet keep appropriate to the
time. I felt I was fairly successful at that.
Today you would say they don't write campaign songs the way
they used to. That is, there's nobody writing them in all
the little houses, all the hustings and little clubhouses
all around the country, but that isn't so. Practically in
every little town, in every little area, quarter or precinct,
somebody is writing some words to some song that everybody
knows, whether it's by the Beatles, or by Dion, or by Metallica.
These songs, when they become part of the public knowledge,
become very useful. Just like when I do a children's program,
I have all these marvelous songs that come out of the pop
circuit that the kids have been writing new words to.
Consequently we have different kinds of songs; we have the
songs based on the older songs, "to the tune of."
And then we have a contemporary, completely original song,
which is listed by the Democratic or Republican National Committee,
or the Worker's committee. If they like the song, it will
be the song of the Democratic Party, or Roosevelt's campaign
song, or Clinton's. Those songs hardly ever really make it.
They sing them at the convention, they hand out the words,
and very rarely do they come to the fore.
The most successful are those that are based on older songs.
Like the Eubie Blake-Noble Sissle song, "I'm Just Wild
About Harry," for Harry Truman. Eubie Blake, who wrote
the [original] lyric, decided that he would write his own
parody. When I spoke with him in my office for his 99th birthday,
I asked him "What made you suddenly decide to really
support a white man for President, when there were songs being
written about Martin Luther King for President?"
GRIN: What did Eubie say?
BRAND: He said, "Mr. Truman integrated the armed
forces. I would write him an opera if he wanted." So
Eubie wrote the song, it went:
I'm just wild about Harry
And Harry's wild about me
The fates decreed it, and I agreed it
Harry made history
So people who think it's not being done any more are mistaken.
It's always being done.
This country sings more than any country I know, despite
what you might read. We don't have great choirs singing in
the concert halls as in some countries where that's part of
the culture. In America, everybody sings. Kids sing in the
streets, if they don't there's something wrong. Maybe they
lose it as they grow up, become spectators and listeners.
But it's there, it's always there. You go to any college campus
or high school campus, and everybody sings. They don't think
of it as singing folk music, they think of it as singing funny
So I have not only great hopes, but complete belief, that
it's not going to stop. And with campaigns, it will always
go on. I'm sure I could, in 5 years, do a whole new CD on
campaign songs of the United States, and it wouldn't use any
of the songs I already had.
GRIN: You do so many things - do you have a favorite
among the things that you do? Something you particularly enjoy?
BRAND: I'm a writer. I'm working on a book right now.
It's the story of my life - The Ballad Mongers was
really a biography - all those things I write about, I was
there. This time I'm writing a little more personal stuff,
about being born in Manitoba, Canada, learning my songs there.
The songs are part of it - I can never divorce myself from
the songs, nor can they ever divorce themselves from me, though
I continue to have major involvement with WNYC. I've been
on the air since 1945 when I was ejected from the Army. I
won the war with my brother - he did most of it actually -
and I've been running the program ever since. With one eye
on the folk music world, the show has been reflecting the
changes and movements of the songs. All these years the program
has changed, twisted, serpentined, all the way to the present
day. The music changes, the program changes, but always with
one foot in the past. The people who began to listen to the
program in 1945 - and there are so many of them around the
country, around the world - they have to be satisfied. That's
what I'm doing. I can't say I love any one thing better than
others, but I do love to write.
(For more information about Oscar Brand visit
his website, www.oscarbrand.com)