Ronnie Gilbert, “singer with social conscience”, 1926-2015

Posted: June 9, 2015 by Admin in Cultural studies, LGBT, Life, Music - lives, State repression, United States - politics
The Weavers

The Weavers

by Don Franks

Progressive American singer and stage actor Ronnie Gilbert died last Saturday, aged 88.

Ronnie Gilbert was born Ruth Alice Gilbert in Brooklyn on September 7th 1926 to immigrant parents.

Her Ukrainian father worked as a milliner. Her Polish mother, Sarah, was a garment worker, union activist and Communist Party member.  When Ronnie was ten years old, her mother took her to a union rally where Paul Robeson sang, an experience Ronnie Gilbert later recalled as “transformative.”

“That was the beginning of my life as a singer and a — I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but a singer, a singer with social conscience, let’s say,” she said in a 2004 interview.

As a teenager, in Washington, she met other musicians and eventually became part of a group called the Weavers: Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. Combining strong harmonies with sparkling guitar and banjo accompaniment, the quartet quickly became popular. Innovative for the time, the Weavers’ versions of oral tradition folk songs, union ballads and gospel tunes sounded new and fresh.

The Weavers’ first concerts were free performances at union meetings and picket lines. In 1949 they scored a professional gig, two weeks residency at the Village Vanguard in New York City. That proved so successful they stayed for six months.

The Village Vanguard achievement earned the Weavers a deal with Decca Records, television and radio appearances, and extensive touring.

Through their commercial success, the group stuck to leftist politics.

This was brave behaviour in Cold War 1950s America.  In 1951, the Weavers were investigated by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which sought to probe potentially subversive citizen threats, and soon they were blacklisted from recording, appearing on television or radio or performing in many concert venues.

In 1955, the Weavers’ manager, Harold Leventhal, arranged a concert at Carnegie Hall. The show sold out. As well as liking the act, many people bought tickets as an act of solidarity with persecuted leftists.

“I was at the 1955 concert at Carnegie Hall,” wrote  Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary. “Part of the reason that I could sing folk songs was because of Ronnie Gilbert.

“When I first began to sing, most of the better-known people who were singing folk songs had those sort of Kentucky mountain sopranos. I of course was anything but a soprano! So when I heard the Weavers I found another voice, one that was definitely the voice of a strong woman, someone able to stand on her own two feet and face adversity.

“And she had a courageous voice: There was a tremendous sense of joy and energy and courage in her voice. She was able to be very gentle, too; she did wonderful ballads and lullabies and things; but there was that trumpet sound she had that I found very encouraging, because it said, oh, you too! You’re not a misfit, there’s somebody else out there with a big voice!”

As Mary Travis has noted, there was a great sense of energy and joy in the Weavers’ sound. Their style was much influenced by Jewish folksong, and also borrowed from African-American gospel. Although the Weavers often sang and hung out with African-American blues artists, that influence, so prevalent today, is not so evident in their music.

In fact, to modern ears, there is a sort of wholesome naivety in some of the Weavers’ music, and in their lyrics. It seems bizarre that generalized appeals for peace, international friendship and union organization should have brought down so much savage wrath from the American establishment.

The American Communist Party, which influenced so many leftists and liberals of the 1950s, was not a revolutionary threat. But the party was aligned with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Along with others in the entertainment industry, the Weavers were victims of fall out from superpower rivalry.

It is to the Weavers’ credit that under extreme pressure they did not sell out.

After the Weavers disbanded in 1964, Ronnie Gilbert put more of her creative energy into the theatre. She gained an M.A. in psychology in the 1970s and worked as a therapist.

Beginning in the 1980s, she also recorded and performed with the folk singer and activist Holly Near.

In 1980, the Weavers performed one last time at a sold-out reunion concert in Carnegie Hall.

In 2006, the once-reviled group collected a lifetime achievement Grammy award.

Ronnie Gilbert is survived by her daughter Lisa and by her longtime partner Donna Korones whom she married in 2004.

The courageous voice is silenced, its inspirational echo remains.

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