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Oscar Brand dies; longtime radio host, folksinger was 96

Oscar Brand sings while playing his guitar at

Oscar Brand sings while playing his guitar at his home in Great Neck on June 1, 2005. Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

Folksinger, songwriter and radio host Oscar Brand, known for his long-running New York radio show, “Folksong Festival,” died Friday at his home in Great Neck. He was 96.

Brand died of complications from pneumonia, his manager, Doug Yeager said.

Brand was known as a prolific songwriter, producing nearly 100 albums and writing songs for Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte, among others.

Over the course of his career, he worked across a variety of media, including film, theater, radio, television and books.

But Brand was best known for sharing the spotlight on “Folksong Festival,” which ran for more than 70 years on New York City’s WNYC. The program served as a showcase for folk music’s biggest names as well as newcomers.

“His gift was to be able to perform all over, but he always created a platform for others in a most gracious way,” his wife, Karen Brand, said.

“Folksong Festival” — the longest-running weekly radio program with the same host in American history — was commemorated in Guinness World Records in 2005. Brand’s last broadcast aired just a week ago on Sept. 24, said Laura Walker, president and chief executive of New York Public Radio.

“He was so beloved by everyone at the station,” Walker said. “I can’t imagine a weekend without Oscar.”

Brand began broadcasting on WNYC in 1945 after leaving the Army, according to his personal website. Some of the show’s landmark moments included Bob Dylan’s first solo New York radio show and one of the earliest performances of Arlo Guthrie playing “Alice’s Restaurant.” Other guests included Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Judy Collins.

“Every folksinger who came to New York wanted to be on Oscar’s program,” folksinger Jean Ritchie told Newsday in 2005.

Brand was born Feb. 7, 1920, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His family made frequent trips to the United States to see doctors for a young Brand, who was born missing a muscle in one leg. A year later, the family relocated to Brooklyn, where he went on to study psychology at Brooklyn College.

Brand told Newsday in 2005 that he fought to become a psychologist with the Army, overcoming his missing muscle and nearsightedness, only to leave after discovering “I didn’t want to be a psychologist.”

He showed up on the steps of the WNYC studios, guitar in hand, in December 1945. Brand began to host the show and play music for the station, work that was entirely volunteered, Newsday wrote.

He earned a Peabody Award in 1995 for his work providing a platform for folk musicians. Over the course of his career, he received various honors, including an Edison Award and Emmy Awards.

In his personal life, Brand was always a committed parent at home in Great Neck, his family said.

“He always said the things he was most proud of are his children and he genuinely meant it,” his wife said.

Brand had three children from a previous marriage and a fourth with his second wife, whom he married in 1970.

“He always made the four of us feel like we were the most important things in his life,” said his son James Brand of Atlanta.

He took pride in making sure his children stayed close as they grew older, and each child picked up a little bit of their father’s talents, said his son, who performed for years as a comedian and magician in Las Vegas and Georgia.

In addition to his wife and son, Brand is survived by children Jeannie DeRienzo of Chevy Chase, Maryland; Eric Brand of Passaic, New Jersey; and Jordan Brand of Oakland, California, and several grandchildren.

The family will hold a private funeral and is planning a memorial concert.

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