World’s music still pushes his buttons

Maury Bernstein on the West Bank in the 1970s.

taken from the Seward Profile

What do Willie Murphy, Spider John Koerner, Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson have in common?besides having been interviewed for this series?

They all say, ?You?ve got to talk to Maury Bernstein, if you want to know the history of music on the West Bank.? So, I did and here he is.

Born in 1939 in New York, Bernstein?s family moved to Minneapolis when he was 7 months old. Bernstein picked up the accordion at the age of 10. He played and sang numerous styles of folk music, including Italian, French, Russian, Scandinavian, British and Australian, on his full size, 120-bass, Titano piano accordion until a few years ago.

Bernstein lived on the West Bank for 30 years beginning in 1969. He majored in Latin and English at the University of Minnesota. He loves learning languages and is currently studying Russian.

Bernstein?s insatiable curiosity about ethnic music, still vibrant, led him down many paths. He taught ethnomusicology in British and American folk music at the University of Minnesota from 1979?86. Bernstein produced and hosted a National Public Radio show, ?Folk Music and Bernstein? from 1961?78. He was founder and organizer of Cedar-Riverside?s Snoose Boulevard Festival which drew 100,000 people in 1974. He was part of the Olle i Skratthult Research Project with Anne-Charlotte Harvey from Sweden, who was the singer for Bernstein?s band for all the Snoose Boulevard Festivals. He produced three albums featuring the music from the festivals. Now he loves the French music program of KFAI-FM, which he says is, ?flavorful and old-fashioned, really.?

I talked with Bernstein, who has Parkinson?s Disease, at the nursing home where he now lives. Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson, who played many weddings, bar mitzvahs and ethnic festivals with Bernstein over the years, joined me. On a second visit, I played fiddle for him, and he played his accordion for the first time in years. It sounded beautiful as he played Russian Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, and French songs and more. I could imagine how he made people dance.

Seward Profile: How did you find the various songs from all over that you played?

Maury Bernstein: Minneapolis Public Library. That?s where it was to be found.

SP: How did you get interested in the Australian music?

MB: I began a magazine subscription to Australian Tradition, which turned out to be a pretty nice little magazine. I learned songs from it. And some of the Australian songbooks just knocked me out. I sat talking with a couple of friends, and we decided to put together a band and play real bush music, not to be confused with aboriginal music.

SP: Did you have a lot of students in your ethnomusicology courses?

MB: Well, the first night there were 103 students. I was overwhelmed by that number.

Bill Hinkley: I heard a lecture of yours.

MB: It was two and a half hours, once a week. What was I talking about when you were there, Bill?

BH: You were talking about everything under the sun. You?d be talking about one of your main topics, but then someone would ask you a question which would bring forth a whole ?nother topic, and that would lead to another. You?d be talking about British music, and then Italian music and then Yiddish theater, and then what was on the radio today, and then U.S. popular music . . .

SP: What did you do after the university courses you taught?

MB: I was broke all the time until I managed to get together a group of musicians. I was jobbing musicians that were available. Everyone liked them. Judy and Bill were part of it.

Judy Larson: We played at Iron World a lot, didn?t we? Big productions.

MB: Yes, we did! That was in Chisholm, Minn.

BH: At Iron World they had festivals that would go over different days. Each ethnic group would put on a different presentation. Maury was in charge of ?Jewish Day.?

MB: That wasn?t very big because there weren?t very many Jews there.

JL: They?d have Irish Day, Polish Day, and Slovenian day, Slovak day . . . it would go on all summer. Because there are more people on the Iron Range than anywhere.

MB: Most the Jews had moved away from the Iron Range?there were maybe 30 left. That wasn?t going to guarantee we?d play that day. I enjoyed going up to the Iron Range because the community was so warm towards us. Everyone would come and some would even sing some songs with us. An old man asked me if I knew a Yugoslavian song. There?s no Yugoslavia anymore. But at the time, I did know the song (starts singing one).

JL: So how many radio shows did you do?

MB: Well my folk music show, ?Folk Music and Bernstein? started in 1961 on WAYL. It was a commercial station. And then I moved when WAYL was sold to a bunch of raconteurs, ha-ha!

SP: How did you get involved in music?

MB: I had a troubled family background. My parents had a real struggle to survive. When I went off to college, I never tried to get any scholarships or financial aid, so I was on my own. I held two jobs and went to college at the same time. Then when I decided I couldn?t go on with the lack of money I was living on, which was probably under $3,000 a year, I decided I was going to go into the wedding music business. It was pretty good. We did alright for ourselves, wouldn?t you say so?

SP: You did quite a lot of weddings?

MB: We did a lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs and so forth. How many would you say we did a year, 30? ? People ask me when I?m going to take it up again, but I can?t handle it (shows how large the accordion is). I can?t pick it up, can?t even lift it out of the case.

The difference between an accordion and a concertina is the following: first of all, there are 72 different instruments called the accordion. And an equal number probably that are called the concertina. So what happens is you?ve got to learn, memorize each different keyboard.

I started in [radio in] 1961; I took my first job as a radio announcer at a classical music station. There was a radio station nobody recognizes now, called KWFM, the only classical music station on the air in the Twin Cities. It was at 97.3.1 and then it sold. Every time I lost my place on the dial was because the station got sold to someone. Then my friend Jack Hoover (CHK) who owned WAYL, decided to get into another radio station. He?d just bought KTWN, which was around for a while. So he brought me in there, and that was my folk music program. He caught my Jewish radio program and wanted to know if I wanted to do that. I said, ?I don?t know if I can pull it off. I don?t know if the Jewish community cares enough.?

SP: Did you get a good response from the Jewish community?

MB: Yes, I would say that I did. I featured Israeli pop music, and some of it was so creative and so wonderful. They had some of the best artists in the world.

SP: I want to go back to the radio show interviews.

MB: Oh, I interviewed for a number of different subjects. I interviewed Bessie Jones from the Georgia Sea Islands. I interviewed Jean Ritchie, Theodore Bikel, Pete Seeger. I met Pete in New York State for the first time. He?s so old looking now, but when he sings, he sounds just like he used to. I remember I didn?t arrange for an interview. I was so stupid. We were sitting there for half an hour talking to the man and didn?t realize who the hell he was!

It?s hard to tell you all the stuff I?ve done. But, in radio I really loved doing the Jewish program. And the audience was 90 percent Christian.

SP: Really? Wow.

MB: On Sundays they?d listen.

SP: They liked the show a lot?

MB: Well, I didn?t push religion very hard, and I had some explanations and things. Everyone who was doing a religious in nature program on radio were doing it softer.

[At Snoose Boulevard] We set a price of $100 for every wagon that set up at the festival. We wanted it to be authentic as hell, so the food they brought had to be Scandinavian. It was better than Cedarfest, and even better than the old days on Cedar Avenue ? The communities should put on festivals. I couldn?t participate because of my general health. I would love it if there would be a Somalian Festival. There are so many groups that sing and play. ? A friend of mine who is a Muslim-American says, ?Oh they?re such good Muslims,? meaning that they obey the tenets and they welcome strangers from other Muslim traditions. There is much alike between Muslims and Jews.

last revised: March 29, 2006