Talking with Oscar Brand

By Adam Blair

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 song.

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 artifact.

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 America":

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 stuff.

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 they've tried.

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)


Photo courtesy of WNYC, New York Public Radio

 

 

 

 

"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 artifact."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"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."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"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."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"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."

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