BK2Articles.jpg (6269 bytes)

This article first appeared in Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, November 1997.  Author maintains copyright. 

* * *

Out of the Blue
by John Starr

   Mom loved to sing, and she could easily be goaded into breezing through any one of a number of bawdy old airmen's ballads she'd come to know in her Air Force nursing days.  In familiar company, it would take only a nudge to send her into a complete rendition of, say, "O'Leary's Bar."  Other times she'd get halfway through a more colorful ditty before sputtering to an embarrassed halt, saying, "Well, I don't think I should finish that one in mixed company -- but your father would have.  And he'd have the whole room singing along."

   Dad was a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who, much to the consternation of his parents, had dropped out of Harvard after 18 months to answer the call of the Korean war.

   Somehow, he finagled his way into officer candidate school and pilot training where he earned his bars and wings.  During his first combat assignment flying F-86s in post-war Korea, he developed a passion for bawdy airmen's songs.   

    At the officers' club he'd sing enthusiastically, often dragging gaggles of fellow airmen into joyous, drunken choruses.  And every time he heard a new one he'd write it down.

Sing1.jpg (88748 bytes)
Fighter pilots singing at the pilot's lounge, K-14, Kimpo air base, South Korea, 1954.  Author's father second from left, catching flies.
    Ultimately, he amassed hundreds of songs, compiling them in a notebook he called the Fighter Pilot's Hymn Book.

    One day, while paging through a songbook by folk singer Oscar Brand, he was struck by Brand's suggestion that the Air Force was too young to have engendered much of a song bag.   The book offered some traditional Army, Navy, and Marine ditties but only one Air Force song, and that one was adapted from an old Army tune.  Dad wasn't about to let this misconception go unanswered.

   He fired off a letter. "Are you interested in Air Force songs?" he asked. "I am," Brand answered.  Brand was unprepared for what soon followed: Dad unloaded his entire collection of 238 songs on him.  Singing over the phone, he even supplied Brand with one song's unfamiliar melody.

   Brand welcomed the deluge; it was the largest single collection of such songs he had ever seen.  But it would not be the last word from the "unsung" fliers of the Air Force.  Similarly spurred by Brand's suggestion that the Air Force song bag was young and thin, hundreds of aviators began sending Brand letters, fattening the song bag with favorites of their own.

   Eager to record some of the songs, Brand ran the material by Elektra Records producer Jac Holzman, who quickly gave him a green light for the project.   When Brand asked Holzman if he should launder the more ribald lyrics, Holzman boldly declined, saying: "Let's make it honest."

Purchase this album on CD or cassette

Album1.jpg (33034 bytes)
  "The Wild Blue Yonder, Oscar Brand with the Roger Wilco Four" debuted in the spring of 1959.  It received one of its hottest receptions from my grandmother, who, in a fit of disgust, purportedly scratched one of the more suggestive songs clean off the face of the album.

   Not having been born until some years later, I can't attest to the record's popularity among airmen of the day.   Certainly I grew up listening to it.  But I've always assumed that it turned only in my household, where my father would put it on for some old Air Force buddy and my mother would sometimes object, "Honey, please, not that one.  At least wait until the kids go to sleep." 

   But we kids never really knew what the songs were about.  In fact, with lyrics such as "I wanted wings 'til I got the goddamned things, now I don't want them anymore" and "Throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot's ass," we often found them confusing.

   What was obvious to us was merely the unique air of merriment that seemed to prevail.  Had the songs been sanitized, patriotic overtures layered in sentiment, we would have seen right through them. These were barracks songs for men who knew their next day could be their last.

   Growing up during my father's second career as a banker, I held the album in special regard.  Even before I was a teenager I listened to it, often trying to picture my father as a rowdy jet jockey belting out such colorful laments, sometimes wondering which track my grandmother had obliterated, other times pouring over the write-up Brand gave Dad on the album's back cover.

   In time, however, my interest waned.  I discovered rock 'n roll, high school, and girls.  Shortly thereafter cancer claimed my father, and with his passing I again became interested in the album.  But by then it was gone, somehow lost, probably sold at a garage sale.

   Operating on a tip that my grandmother had long since come around and was actually quite proud of Dad's involvement in the record's genesis, I dropped her a line.

   She couldn't find her copy either but thought she could find Oscar Brand; maybe he would have one.  Sure enough, on my next visit, she presented me with a copy of The Wild Blue Yonder, signed by Brand. She was quick to warn me of its scarcity, quoting Brand as saying, "Here it is.  Now you have one and I have one."

   I cherished the record. Yet it wasn't until years later that I found stuffed inside the jacket a misplaced lyrics booklet that belonged to a second Air Force album Brand had recorded, entitled Out of the Blue: More Air Force Songs by Oscar Brand.

Album2.jpg (38122 bytes)
   Debuting about a year after its predecessor, this album, which I had somehow overlooked all these years, contained not only some of the raunchiest of the ballads from Dad's collection but also a song Dad himself had authored.

   Judging by the lyrics, I could see it was an unremarkable song.  It wasn't even risqué. But it was inspired by an in-flight refueling incident that had nearly cost him his airplane and his life.  I had to find the second album.

   Mom couldn't find her copy, nor could grandmother.  I even called Brand.  He had one worn copy and couldn't advise me on where to find another.

   So I started haunting used record stores in Hollywood, where young clerks -- many of them struggling musicians, pierced, dyed, and tattooed like mutant butterflies -- would look at me as if I had just rolled off a park bench when I explained the nature of the album I sought ("a military album?"). They suggested I try thrift stores and garage sales.  I did, but to no avail.

   One day, while driving through a part of town new to me, I spied a used record store.  I dropped in and was floored by the spectacle of thousands of records strewn everywhere, with thousands more stacked to the ceiling on mammoth wooden shelves.

   "Is there some order to all this?" I asked a man crouched on the floor, flipping through a pile of classical albums.  "Yes indeed," he said. "What are you looking for?"

"Could you point me toward your folk music, um, area?"

   "What artist"" he asked.  I pondered the odds for a moment. "I'm looking for some albums by a fellow named Oscar Brand."

   He raised his hand and snapped his fingers like a maitre d'. "Mike," he called, "show this young man Oscar Brand."

   An elderly man shuffled from around a corner and led me through a labyrinth of dusty catacombs, packed wall to wall with ancient vinyl.  Almost without looking, he came to a stop, reached into a ream of shelved albums, and came out with a stack of records three inches thick.  I'll be damned if each and every one weren't first-issue Oscar Brand albums.

   There were several volumes of the Bawdy Back Room Ballads series, a few of the Army, Navy, and Marine compilations, one copy of The Wild Blue Yonder, and one copy of Out of the Blue, the latter two in excellent condition, complete with lyrics booklets.

   Not wanting to orphan one album, I decided to buy both. "I'll be wanting these two," I said. "How much?"

   "That'll be $35 apiece," the old man said. It suddenly occurred to me that I should have put on a poker face long before I got to this point.  I completed the transaction and headed toward the door. "Hey," he called out, a smug look on his face. "You should have haggled. They're collector's items, but I might have come down to $20 apiece."

   "Yes, but the loss is yours," I said. "I would have gladly paid $100 for each."


"The Wild Blue Yonder" is again available -- from Oscar Brand on CD and cassette.   Click here for ordering information.