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FOLK HERO

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Oscar Brand is a folk singer, recording artist, songwriter, guitarist, bawdy song balladeer, sea chantey performer, radio broadcaster, television program host, emcee, Broadway composer, playwright, actor, author, storyteller, musicologist, historian, children’s recording artist, honorary Ph.D. and one of the creators of "Sesame Street."

And he’s coming to Park Slope for one magical night of songs, stories, laughter and love at the Good Coffeehouse on Friday, June 14.

The Good Coffeehouse has been offering its Friday night concert series for nearly 30 years. The concerts are held in the 100-year-old historic meetinghouse of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, on Prospect Park West at Second Street.

Brand’s show will feature his comprehensive repertoire of folk songs and stories, including his current favorite song, "Touch the Earth," which appears on his CD, "American Dreamer." He will be performing two sets.

Anything is possible. Be prepared to participate; be prepared to sing; be prepared to answer questions. Most importantly, be prepared to witness history.

In a telephone interview with GO Brooklyn, Brand delighted us with his stories, whetting our appetite for the upcoming event.

The Canadian-born Brand has been playing music since his childhood in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

"When I was about 4 years old, we didn’t have indoor plumbing," he said. "We had an outdoor bathroom that we shared. I started whistling and singing while I was in the outhouse, so that someone would know I was there."

Hundreds of thousands of miles later, by way of Borough Park, Oscar Brand still whistles and sings so that people "know I’m here."

Brand’s family came to America when he was about 9 and soon moved to Brooklyn. In the early ’30s, Brand was one of the "Dodger Rooters," a group of young people who were given free admission to Brooklyn Dodgers games "as long as you remembered to cheer."

Growing up, folk music was in Brand’s blood, and he began to write songs even before he could play an instrument.

"Woody Guthrie used to accompany me on guitar when I played a show," said Brand. "He loved to laugh at me."

Guthrie was more than just a friend to Brand, he also was part mentor. For instance, Brand didn’t even know to copyright his songs until he saw Guthrie doing it. "I had recorded nine albums of material before I ever copyrighted a song," he said.

Six decades later, Brand has recorded more than 100 albums (three of which are complete and ready to be distributed now), including the very successful 1999 release "Presidential Campaign Songs: 1789-1996" on the Smithsonian label; "Party at Oscar’s Place," a successful children’s album; and nine albums of bawdy songs.

Brand counted Guthrie and Leadbelly among his friends, and he’s written songs for Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, the Smothers Brothers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. His career spans history, geography and crosses all genres.

He is currently the host of the longest continuously running radio show in history, the "Folk Song Festival," airing every Saturday night at 10 pm on WNYC, 820 AM. He is an American (er, Canadian) Institution, a national treasure.

"My songs are part of a series of musical windows on America," said Brand. "You listen to the songs and you will know more history than if you read a hundred books."

Brand plans to continue working "until they have to carry me out." He stays current by keeping up with as much new music as he can listen to. He considers it a duty to maintain his work as a "balladeer, troubadour, folk singer for we are the repositories of a tremendous songbook confided in us by those singers, writers and artists that came before."

Brand still travels the world with his songbook and stories. "As long as you have a guitar," he says, "you’re safe." In this post-9/11 world, that’s a comforting thought.

Adam Stengel is a singer-songwriter who has produced an album titled "Train of Thought." He is also a music attorney.

 

Oscar Brand will perform as part of the Good Coffeehouse series, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, 53 Prospect Park West at Second Street in Park Slope on Friday, June 14 at 8 pm. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10, $6 children. For more information, call (718) 768-2972 or visit the Web site at www.bsec.org.

Brand’s "Folk Song Festival" airs every Saturday night at 10 pm on WNYC, 820 AM.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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