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