Jean Murai, Village singer and activist, dies at 94
By Karen Kramer
Jean Murai, a folksinger and activist who lived in Greenwich Village for more than 40 years, died at Cabrini Hospice on Sept. 28. She was 94 years old and had suffered a stroke.
Born into a working-class family in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Murai received a Bachelor of Arts in languages and a masters degree in psychology at Hunter College, but on her own studied piano, dancing and singing.
Murai was an avowed socialist who added her voice to many of the important political causes of the 20th century. She wrote and sang songs about union organizing during the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Rosenberg case and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Active in both politics and music throughout her life, it was Jean Murai who at the age of 86 wrote the protest songs that were sung at the demonstration against N.Y.U.s Kimmel Center on Washington Square.
Murai first learned Yiddish folk songs from her mother, but once she started traveling around the world, she added into her repertoire songs from Haiti, Cuba, Spain, France and dozens of other countries. Her messages of peace and humanity can be heard on her popular record Mama, I Want a Husband (on the Stinson label) sung in the tradition of Pete Seeger, with whom she was a close friend.
Murai spoke five languages and thought of herself as a citizen of the world. Her group Jean Murai and Company comprised of singers from varied ethnic backgrounds performed international folk songs at the Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village, as well as concert halls and universities and on radio. Her mission was not to make a spectacular out of folk art but to capture the real feelings of the people whose lives gave birth to their songs and culture. When she stopped singing professionally she started making little clay sculptures that filled her sunny studio apartment on King St. Many of these sculptures were of figures holding hands and dancing in a circle.
A vibrant Village figure who dressed in bright reds and oranges, Murai stood less than 5 feet tall, but with her jaunty blonde ponytail, brightly colored clothes and ethnic jewelry, she stood out wherever she went. When she appeared in the documentary The Ballad of Greenwich Village, The Villagers Jerry Tallmer remembered her as the elegant lady in the red suit.
For many years Murai taught music to seniors at the Caring Community on Washington Square. She was adamant about the idea that everyone should sing whether or not they felt they had a good voice.
Participation is the important thing, she told a reporter once. My specialty is people who think they cannot sing. There is no such thing as the nonsinger. Anyone can sing. Anyone. A frog doesnt take lessons. He doesnt want to be a nightingale.
In recognition of her contribution to playing, teaching and performing music, Murai received a small monthly award from the Annie Tinker Association for Women, an organization that honors older women who have worked mainly in the arts.
Murai married twice but had no children. She is survived by her nephew, Norman Mintz, and his son, Corey Mintz, both of Brooklyn. A memorial service will be held at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South on Tues., Oct. 23, at 4 p.m.