Oscar Brand, Long-time Folksinger and Radio Host

Oscar Brand with Simon Sisters Plus Peter Yarrow–Watch on YouTube

If you look through Oscar Brand’s catalog on Spotify, you’ll find a host of curious titles such as 100 Proof Drinking Songs and Bawdy Songs Goes to College. But since we’re in a presidential election year that’s in particular need of humor, I’ve included a track from Brand’s Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996.

While Brand (February 7, 1920-September 30, 2016) recorded many albums as a singer-songwriter and folk archivist, his enduring record is as a radio personality. For 70 years, he was host of WNYC’s “Folksong Festival,” which earned him a Guinness World Record as the “Longest-running radio programme by the same host.” (More lofty awards include several Peabodys and an Artistic Achievement Award from the Winnipeg Folk Festival.)

During his long tenure at the radio show, he hosted a who’s who of folk greats, including Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan.

“The Union Wagon (Millard Fillmore)” on Spotify


Guy Carawan, Helped Popularize “We Shall Overcome”

“We Shall Overcome” is an old song with no single known author, and it was altered and added to over many years. The form we know it by today was shaped in part by Guy Carawan (July 27, 1927-May 2, 2015).

In an interview with Pacifica Radio, Pete Seeger shared the history of  the song. Mentioned in a 1909 letter about striking tobacco workers, it was picked up in 1947 by Lucille Simmons, another tobacco worker, who revived the song in a slow, no-rhythm way (Seeger called it “long-meter style”). It was heard and learned by labor organizer Zilphia Horton who  in turn shared it with Seeger. He printed it in People’s Songs in 1947, and tried to perform it but had a hard time accompanying it on the banjo.

13 years later at a workshop at the Highlander Folk School (which Horton had co-founded), Seeger heard Carawan sing it with the addition of rhythm, a contribution for which he gives Carawan and Frank Hamilton credit. (Carawan, Hamilton, Seeger and Horton are all listed on the copyright for the song.) The timing was right, as the American Civil Rights movement was beginning to gain momentum, and Carawan, who had become music director of the school, taught it to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As they organized groups throughout the South, they took the song with them. As evidence of the power of the song, President Lyndon Johnson quoted it in his televised address on the voting rights law.

Carawan was a multi-instrumentalist, who played the banjo, guitar and hammered dulcimer. He often performed with his wife, Candie Caraway, and sometimes his son Evan.

John Renbourn, Guitarist and a Founder of Pentangle

John Renbourn (August 8, 1944-March 26, 2015) was an English guitarist who is impossible to categorize. You could dump him in the folk bin, but that would be a disservice. Throughout his career, he went down many musical paths–classical, medieval, jazz, world, blues–often crossing paths along the way.

He was known for his collaborations, including with American blues and gospel singer Dorris Henderson, Bert Jansch, Stefan Grossman and, of course, with Pentangle, the folk-jazz group he co-founded with Jansch, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox.

He also had a prolific solo career, and I’m pleased to include a fairly recent video of an intimate performance he gave at the Letterkenny Arts Centre in Donegal, Ireland.

Before Pentangle, there was Bert and John. Here’s a wonderful Danish documentary from 1967, documenting the British folk scene.

With American guitarist Stefan Grossman, in a little more bluesy direction, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”:

And more blues styling on one of his first recordings, “There You Go,” with Dorris Henderson (1965):


Obituary in The Guardian

Obituary in The New York Times

Obituary in Pitchfork

Obituary in Premier Guitar

Martin Introduces OMM John Renbourn Custom Artist Edition Guitar (Premier Guitar, June 18, 2011)