Let's Sing Out: How Oscar Brand Changed Folk Music on Television
Figure 1: Joni Mitchell (left) singing with Oscar Brand (middle) on an episode of Let's Sing Out with Dave Van Ronk (right) and The Chapin Brothers (Steve Chapin being on the far left, Tom and "Cats in the Cradle" singer-songwriter Harry being left out of the picture).
America’s revival of folk music began in the 1940s with Pete Seeger and the Weavers, the demand for folk music continued rapidly into the 1950s with the introduction of Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records and Moses Asch’s Folkway Records labels. Artists such as The Weavers – with their best-selling Carnegie Hall album in 1957 – catapulted the need to explore society’s ills through America’s most sacred genre, performed with the instruments that belonged to the people not of our homeland, but of others too. Whether it would be Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, Oceania, or even Antarctica (although their music culture is unheard of and unrealized).
By the 1960s, jazz was already in experimental mode and most audiences were worried about the decline of rock n’ roll especially with the deaths of Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens. Surprisingly, Folk music, was barely impacted and most artists like Pete Seeger proceeded to sneak into the radio stations with songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” which was based on a verse from the book of Ecclesiastes. About this time, radio also happened to be an avenue for Oscar Brand to promote folk artists from around the world. Brand, a Canadian singer-songwriter and Elektra artist, took to the new avenue of public radio as a way for current singers like Seeger, Lead Belly (before his death), and Woody Guthrie and newcomers like Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, and Joni Mitchell.
Televisions around the world became an epidemic of technology, the consumer culture exploded during the post-World War II age and the promising innovations of television sets and new types of entertainment programming ensured a trove of wealth for corporations but also a way to propagandize, torture, and kill previous imaginations and usher in avant-garde attitudes and Beat philosophies to the unsure citizens of a new age.
The 1950s was a shunning moment for the folk movement as a result of the McCarthyites. Pete Seeger’s protest against a subpoena led to his imprisonment and banning from radio stations and television shows. Being an anti-Stalinist, Oscar Brand was able to continue his show on WNYC which would soon become an affiliate with the newly established National Public Radio identity in the 1970s.
CTV would go on to approach Brand with a revised live version of his past NPR shows in the United States, allowing him to return to Canada. The show, Let’s Sing Out, was another entry into the mainstream folk music scene. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) aired the successful Hootenanny however, the blacklisting of Pete Seeger, brought well-known acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Seeger himself to boycott the show.
With the ratings a bust and the decline of the current folk scene rising, Hootenanny was cancelled and replaced with Shindig, a more modern musical variety show focused on the rising younger demographics of the baby boomers. Ironically, Shindig would be cancelled two years later. However, Let’s Sing Out was a new try at a Hootenanny-like format that attempted to travel to college campuses around Canada with the leading folk troubadours of the day. Unlike Hootenanny, however, Let’s Sing Out focused on many areas of folk; including the jug band music from Jim Kweskin, the soulful combination of pop and folk from the likes of Len Chandler, and Joni Mitchell’s iconic experimental songwriting which focused on the feminist and counterculture attitudes of the day.
The show was a success and lasted for a couple of years on CTV before transferring to CBC where, in 1967, its broadcast would end. Here, the folk scene begins to evolve into folk rock, psychedelic rock, and hard rock. The genres that would be performed at Woodstock in 1969.
Although Let’s Sing Out, didn’t last as long as Saturday Night Live, it was still revolutionary, as a pioneering concept for television that never got the ideal respect it earned.
The show laid the path for many unknown folk artists, and for the folk music genre, to reach new audiences in a demographic that was constantly concerned about the civil rights movement and the sanctity and cynicism of the protests that surrounded the grotesque resentment of those perishing.
It is true to say that Oscar Brand’s courage and tenacity was partly responsible for convincing his viewers – through the power and motivation of lovely winding music – to be more conscious and more determined to stand up on the soap box and let the thoughts flow and speak for themselves in the manner they should .
Since the days of Let’s Sing Out, there has never been another major folk music television program in households across the United States, on any major network or even cable television channels like MTV and VH1, although they occasionally dabble in the genre. With the advent of YouTube and Spotify podcasts, those days will no doubt see a renaissance, if not a full-fledged second revival of traditional folk music standards and evolving tastes within.