Ronnie Gilbert, Bold-Voiced Singer With the Weavers, Is Dead at 88
[A tribute by Bruce Weber, from The New York Times, Sunday June 7, 2015]
Ronnie Gilbert, whose crystalline, bold contralto provided distaff ballast for the Weavers, the seminal quartet that helped propel folk music to wide popularity and establish its power as an agent of social change, died on Saturday in Mill Valley, Calif. She was 88.
The death was confirmed by her partner, Donna Korones.
Ms. Gilbert had a résumé as a stage actor and later in life a career as a psychologist, but her enduring impact was as a singer.
The Weavers, whose other founding members were Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, started playing together in the late 1940s. Like-minded musicians with progressive political views, they performed work songs, union songs and gospel songs, and became known for American folk standards like “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Goodnight, Irene” (first recorded by the blues singer Lead Belly), Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” and “The Hammer Song” (a.k.a. “If I Had a Hammer”) by Mr. Seeger and Mr. Hays, as well as songs from other cultures, including “Wimoweh” from Africa and “Tzena Tzena Tzena,” a Hebrew song popular in Israel (though it was written before Israel was established in 1948).
Their voices, especially Ms. Gilbert’s, were powerful, their harmonies were distinctive and their attitude was an enthusiastic embrace of the listener. Together those elements created a singalong populism that laid the groundwork for a folk-music boom in the 1950s and 1960s and its concomitant earnest strain of 1960s counterculture.
The Kingston Trio, the Limeliters and Peter, Paul & Mary, among others, were direct musical descendants; slightly more distant relations included Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs.
“We sang songs of hope in that strange time after World War II, when already the world was preparing for Cold War,” Ms. Gilbert recalled in “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time,” a 1982 documentary about the group. “We still had the feeling that if we could sing loud enough and strong enough and hopefully enough, it would make a difference.”
The Weavers’ own narrative was a dramatic one, a product of the political moment. Hardly confrontational or subversive in their presentations — in their public appearances they were well groomed, the men often wearing jackets and ties and Ms. Gilbert a dress — they were nonetheless targeted by the anti-Communist right wing.
In 1949 they were still an informal ensemble, playing at union meetings and on picket lines but rarely if ever for money. They were on the verge of dispersing when Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard in Manhattan, booked them to play for two weeks during the Christmas holidays. Instantly a hit, they were so popular that they stayed at the Vanguard for six months and were signed by Decca Records. For the next two years, touring and recording and appearing on radio and television, they were among the biggest musical stars in the country.
But in June 1950, the influential pamphlet “Red Channels,” purportedly an exposé of the Communist infiltration of the entertainment industry, was published, and it named Pete Seeger, who had in fact been a member of the Communist Party earlier in his life.
The following year the Weavers were investigated by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, whose purview was to root out subversive citizen threats. In 1952, while they were on tour in Ohio, a paid informant for the F.B.I., Harvey Matusow, testified before the Ohio Un-American Activities Commission that three members of the group, including Ms. Gilbert, were Communist Party members. (Mr. Matusow would later write a book in which he recanted dozens of his accusations.)
The Weavers were blacklisted; invitations to perform and record dried up, their recordings were removed from stores, and the group disbanded. With her husband, Martin Weg, a dentist, Ms. Gilbert moved to California, where they started a family.
Then, in 1955, the Weavers’ manager, Harold Leventhal, arranged a concert at Carnegie Hall. The show sold out, perceived by many ticket buyers not just as a musical event but as an act of defiance against the overzealousness of anti-Communists.
It renewed interest in the Weavers, and though Seeger (who died in 2014) left the group a couple of years later, the group, with a series of replacements beginning with Erik Darling, continued to perform and record until 1964, when they gave a farewell concert in Chicago. Their influence — and Ms. Gilbert’s — was by then well established.
“I was at the 1955 concert at Carnegie Hall,” Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary wrote in a companion booklet to a boxed set of recordings by the Weavers. “And surely for me 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!”
Ms. Gilbert was born Ruth Alice Gilbert in Brooklyn on Sept. 7, 1926, and grew up in and around New York City. Her parents were immigrants; they separated when she was 11, but by then had given her piano and dance lessons. Her father, Charles, from the Ukraine, worked as a milliner. Her mother, Sarah, from Poland, was the more influential parent — a garment worker, a union activist and a member of the Communist Party who also had an interest in the arts. She brought her daughter, about 10 at the time, to a union rally at which Paul Robeson sang, an event Ronnie Gilbert would later recall 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 for Voices of Feminism, an oral history project at Smith College.
At 16, Ms. Gilbert was living in Washington, D.C., in the home of a friend of her mother’s, where she met other musicians and sang in a folk group called the Priority Ramblers. Later, she and Fred Hellerman met as counselors at a New Jersey summer camp, and in New York afterward they became part of a community of folk singers and musicians that coalesced around Pete Seeger.
The Weavers’ own recollections of how the group came together, given in various interviews, were hazy. But they have mostly agreed that the final makeup of the group was the result of a happy accident: When they sang together, it sounded great. It was the Village Vanguard gig that made them a real group.
“Occasionally we’d do something at a hootenanny or something like that, but usually we were just singing for the fun of it,” Mr. Hellerman recalled in the CD booklet. “Then at one point when reality was beginning to set in, and Ronnie was going to go out to California, I think to get a job out there, and I was going to go to graduate school there, I mean we were clearly going to go our own ways, so we had one last desperate thought. It was kind of ludicrous when you stop and think about it. We thought, well, gee, maybe there’s some way we could get some kind of job together so we can make just enough money so that we could continue to sing down in Pete’s basement every Wednesday afternoon.”
After the Weavers broke up in 1964, Ms. Gilbert spent much of her creative energy in the theater. She worked with the director Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theater; she worked with the experimental director Peter Brook in Paris. In 1968, she appeared on Broadway in “The Man in the Glass Booth,” Robert Shaw’s drama about the trial of a man who may or may not be a Nazi war criminal, directed by Harold Pinter. She earned an M.A. in psychology in the 1970s and worked as therapist.
In 1980, the Weavers performed one last time at a sold-out reunion concert in Carnegie Hall. Beginning in the 1980s, Ms. Gilbert also recorded and performed often with the folk singer and activist Holly Near. The two of them toured in 1984 with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in a group they called HARP, melding the first letters of the performers’ names.
In the early 1990s, Ms. Gilbert appeared in regional theaters, performing her own one-woman show about Mary Harris, the labor organizer known as Mother Jones. Her solo recordings include “Come and Go With Me,” “Alone With Ronnie Gilbert” and “Love Will Find a Way.” Her memoir, “Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song,” is scheduled for publication by the University of California Press this fall.
Ms. Gilbert’s marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by her daughter, Lisa, and a granddaughter. Ms. Gilbert, who lived in Mill Valley, Calif., is also survived by her partner, Ms. Korones, who was her manager and business partner for many years. They were married in 2004 in San Francisco during a brief period when the mayor, Gavin Newsom, opened City Hall to same-sex weddings; theirs and some 4,000 other marriages were later declared invalid by the California Supreme Court.