Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Grand Old OSCAR BRAND - The Hearse Song (the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out)

Few have remarked on the passing of Oscar Brand (February 7, 1920 – September 30, 2016). One reason is that he out-lived the folk movement by about 50 years, and though active almost till the end, he didn’t quite have the visibility or the hit songs that Pete Seeger did. '

He knew and worked with Pete, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Jean Ritchie and all the legends, and hosted a remarkably long-running radio show in New York (originating on WNYC). While a traditionalist, he supported all the newer performers, and his radio guests included Phil Ochs and Judy Henske.  Oscar appeared on the memorable TV broadcast of the “Tribute to Phil Ochs” in 1976, singing an updated version of “Love Me I’m a Liberal.” (On the same bill, two of the Weavers, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger, took on Phil’s other satiric classic, “Draft Dodger Rag.”)  

Brand made nearly 100 albums, but only a few folkies, scholars and pervs would know. One problem is that he sounded a bit like another bland Jewish-Canadian, Monty Hall (who is still alive, at 95). Monty’s high tenor was crisp, even, and well suited to dispassionate quiz show hosting. It wouldn’t have worked too well if he’d tried to be an actor. Likewise, Brand’s voice was bland, and not expressively individual. It served him well in preserving musical history where diction and correct notes were important, but it was more textbook than novel.  

His neutral vocal talent probably helped his “Bawdy” record series stay in stores, and himself out of jail. The multi-disc series could've been an "under the counter" item but he gave it legitimacy with his clear voice and his background as a student of music history. There was hardly a growl or leer in his vocalizing, as he documented dozens and dozens of ribald folk songs, sea shanties and madrigals. He also sanitized some of the lines, which were already full of inane euphemisms (“jigga-jig-jig hey ho!”)  

Brand wrote over 300 songs, but to use the critical line hurled at the even more prolific Steve Allen, “name two.” You might know “A Guy is a Guy,” which was a hit for Doris Day, or “My Old Man’s a Sailor,” which was inspired by tongue-twisters and became a highlight for the Smothers Brothers.  

Born in Canada, which has given us quite a few Jewish stars (Monty Hall, David Steinberg and William Shatner among them), the family moved South when Oscar was seven, first to Minnesota and then to New York. He attended college in Brooklyn, but in an irony, came back to Canada to get his first break. He became host for the TV show “Let’s Sing Out,” which had a long run and, like his later WNYC radio show, helped give exposure to new talent, in this case Canadians Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.

The ever-busy Mr. Brand wrote songs for cabaret shows including the 1968 off-Broadway hit “How to Steal an Election,” and worked behind the scenes at the Children’s Television Workshop in developing “Seseme Street.” Like so many of his contemporaries, he marched in Civil Rights rallies, sang just enough “radical” or at least “off color” songs to make him suspicious to Republicans, and was investigated by “Red Channels” for being a possible Communist.  

Through it all, he continued singing and performing and writing songs, rarely getting as much attention as others in the folk world. Again, part of it was his bland voice, and also his professor-personality. While he could be witty and wry in his between-song patter, he came off more as a lecturer. His hosting was a bit dry, and he had enough ego to take up time on every show (being the “star”) to sing a song on his own; this, while most in the audience would’ve preferred a third one from Ochs or Henske or the Ivy League Trio, or anyone but Oscar.  

I know an obit isn’t really the place to be truthful or "critical," but this blog IS run by a realist (in the Paul Krassner sense). Besides, for better or worse (it's hard to tell) this blog has gotten a reputation and cult following for, to use a Dylan phrase, "not turning a blind eye to human nature." And as Sahl might add, "and not resisting iconoclastic humor."  

To digress,  below you'll note a little mention of the IllFolks blog. Sometimes bloggers offer up a list of recommended sites, and one fellow very kindly added a link to THIS one, but with a slight caveat. Just look down a bit (passing quite a few of now-defunct blogs and websites) and note this site and a parenthetical word of caution:  

Although Oscar's personality could be a bit off-putting, (gee, where did I borrow THAT description from), he was a venerable man, and his credits are enviable. Oscar’s version of “Farewell to Nova Scotia” was the first I’d ever heard. He even recorded it for a major label (Kapp) on a live album recorded at a college concert. Oscar's introduction to the song mentions that his scholarly interpretation may be different from the popular one but, "I'd like to do it MY WAY." And, as is often the case with off-putting personalities, more credit to him for being an individual. 

Brand was probably one of the first to actually record “The Hearse Song,” which some of you might not know by title, but by the key phrase, “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…”

One of the great things about song-collectors like Brand, or Carl Withers, the author of "Rocket in My Pocket," is the preservation of every-day pop culture. Schoolyard rhymes and anonymous folk songs deserve documentation. Some scholarly types even take the trouble to note permutations (we need a pinhead word for this) in how an item might be performed in a specific part of the world, or by a certain ethnic group. Brand's chosen version of "The Hearse Song" is how soldiers sang it, sort of "black humor" in the trenches. There's a reference to officers, and later, to The Pentagon. In part:

“...As you watch the death wagon riding by, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. 
You wish it weren’t, but you know it’s true, the very next load may consist of you. 
The burial detail lowers you down, the officers they just stand around, 
they shovel in dirt, they shovel in rocks, they don’t give a damn if they break the box. 
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they creep all over your chin and mouth. They call their friends, their friends’ friends too, you look like hell when they get through…"

In your Trick or Treat days, maybe you sang: “the worms crawl in the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout” or “the worms crawl in the worms crawl out, they chew your guts and they spit them out.” Whatever, the imagery and grim finality in the song never changes. But there's hope. Oscar Brand, who succumbed to "the old people's friend" (pneumonia) may have been cremated. Or as we say around the crematorium, "Fuck you, worms!" 

 THE HEARSE SONG (the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out...)   (Listen online or download; no pop-ups, no requests for payment, no passwords.) 

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