With a passion for folk music and fingers that danced on an accordion, Maury Bernstein brought small corners of the world to life in the coffeehouses and streets of Minneapolis.
He wrote in 1966 that folk music, in general, “is neither the best nor the worst music in the world … It is, however, the most varied. That is why I have grown to love it.”
That variation was a theme in Bernstein’s life, as he became an eccentric fixture, first in Dinkytown, then the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood near the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus.
He spent stints teaching, hosting a National Public Radio program called “Folk Music and Bernstein,” hosting “The Jewish Program” featuring news and commentary on various radio stations, and playing music at weddings, funerals, local bars, coffeehouses and other venues. Bernstein organized the Snoose Boulevard Festival celebrating Scandinavian heritage in the Cedar-Riverside community in the 1970s.
Bernstein died Nov. 9 after living for years with Parkinson’s disease. He was 74.
Born into a musical family that came to Minnesota from New York when Bernstein was an infant, Bernstein began playing accordion at age 10 and quickly fell in love with folk music.
“I think something stirred in his heart when he started playing the accordion,” said longtime friend Jean Berglund.
He taught ethnomusicology and British and American folk music at the University of Minnesota in the early 1980s, according to a Seward Profile story about him in 2005. He played and sang numerous styles of folk music, including Italian, French, Russian, Scandinavian, British and Australian, the story said.
In a 1966 guest column for the Minneapolis Tribune, he was careful to define folk music as the music of grandfathers, not the popular songs of Peter, Paul and Mary or Bob Dylan.
Friends say he was a soft-spoken, lifelong bachelor and learner who was passionate about whatever he did.
“The musicians who knew him, I think they were aggravated by him because he was so insistent on doing things right,” said Anne-Charlotte Harvey, a singer who recorded and performed music about the Scandinavian immigrant experience with Bernstein. “He never said, ‘We’ve had enough rehearsal. I’ve gotta go home to my family.’ He was inexhaustible.”
He was also passionate about justice and social causes, friends said, and found help for other musicians who were down on their luck.
Musician Papa John Kolstad recalled bumping into Bernstein often on neighborhood sidewalks. He would greet friends and acquaintances not by saying hello, but instead by simply sharing news or facts he had discovered, starting the conversation with “Did you know …”
Bernstein was “a walking encyclopedia of all kinds of folk music,” Kolstad said, adding that when Bernstein performed, “he had this vast, vast repertoire of songs. You never knew what you were going to hear from Maury.”
Friends said Bernstein could put a band together to fit any occasion.
“He was a fervent believer in the power of music to touch people, a fervent believer in justice and fairness,” Harvey said. “He made a lasting impression on all kinds of people.”
Bernstein is survived by his sister, Melody “Merriam” Bernstein. Services have been held.
A memorial meeting celebrating the life of Ken Tilsen, one of the Twin Cities most prominent civil rights attorneys, will be held Nov. 23 at 2:30 p.m. at Anderson Student Center, 774 Snelling Av. N. at Hamline University. Tilsen, 85, died Sept. 1.
The program will be co-chaired by Michael Davis, chief U.S. District federal judge in Minnesota, and retired attorney Barbara Penn. Speakers will include family members, attorney Bill Tilton, a member of the Minnesota 8; Prof. Mahmoud El-Kati of Macalester College; and a representative of the American Indian Movement.