Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 14, 2013
Things have a way of hiding out on the Internet. Case in point: these three-year-old YouTube posts of excerpts from a 1959 episode of Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival. The legendary lefty/balladeer/recording artist/author/producer’s program has aired weekly on WNYC since December 1945 (!)—which makes Brand a legendary broadcaster above all, I guess. (And did I mention “nonagenarian“? Go ahead: think of anybody—anybody—in North American folk music over the past 70 years. They’ve almost certainly been on Folksong Festival.)
Like his 1940s fellow travelers in “People’s Songs,” an organization to which, like all groups, he belonged only ambivalently, Brand has always taken a broad view of folk music, which means that he has occasionally showcased calypso on his program. (He even wrote and sang one—”Small Boat Calypso”—for his 1960 album Boating Songs and All That Bilge. I confess I haven’t heard it, though given Brand’s weakness for comic and bawdy songs, I wouldn’t want to vouch for its authenticity.)
The Duke of Iron’s first appearances on WNYC precede Brand by more than half a decade, and in his sophomore date on June 27th, 1940 (as reported by the left-leaning daily PM), the Harlem-based calypsonian unveiled an ode to the public station and its patron saint, Hizzoner:
Yes, WNYC, it is owned by the people of N. Y. C.
You have heard of that great little fighter
And I mean our Mayor LaGuardia
Who for days and nights of much deliberation
Fought for the existence of his pet station.
We look up to him as the godfather
For without his aid we couldn’t get so far.
Through his efforts you would be glad to hear
We’ll be on the air for another year.
Still, given the Duke’s pre-eminence on the New York scene, not to mention his own occasional involvement with the People’s Songsters, it’s a safe bet that he eventually took part in Brand’s Festival, too. [Update, April 2014: he did indeed—and more, besides. Stay tuned.]
At left is Brand with folksinger Josh White and calypsonian Lord Burgess, né Irving Burgie, the man behind Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” and dozens of other Caribbe-ish tunes. (The photo probably dates from around 1954, after Burgie had made an LP for Stinson Records and was playing a six-week date at the Village Vanguard.) And below are the excerpts from that undated 1959 show, when MacBeth the Great was two years dead but his namesake Orchestra lived on, under the leadership of brother Pelham Fritz, who went on to a long career as a New York City Parks & Recreation official. (Bandmember Claude “Fats” Greene would later take the helm before striking out on his own.)
The first tune is a cover of Sparrow’s prize-winning, animal-rights-oriented take on the Sputnik panic, “Russian Satellite.” In the second, the band is joined by Lord Invader, who skewers segregationist Governor Orville Faubus in his original composition, “Crisis in Arkansas.”
You can find “legitimate” archival audio from Folksong Festival at WNYC’s website.
Several items from Fats Greene’s discography on Cab & Camille records are also floating around on YouTube, and they’re all well worth a listen: “Justina,” “Senorita,” “Calypsorama,” and “Shake ‘M Up.”