by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Ronnie Gilbert, singer for the seminal political folk group The Weavers, died at her home in Mill Valley, California, on June 6. She was 88.
She is survived by her longtime partner Donna Korones, a daughter from a previous marriage, and a grand daughter.
With a voice the New York Times described as 'crystalline,' Gilbert was the only woman in the group. The other founding members were Pete Seeger (1919-2014), Lee Hays (1914-1981), and Fred Hellerman. Hellerman, born in 1927, is the last living member of the group.
Gilbert was born Ruth Alice Gilbert in Brooklyn on September 7, 1926, and grew up in and around New York City.
Her immigrant parents separated when she was 11, but they had already 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, union activist, and member of the Communist Party, she was also keenly interested 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, Gilbert 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. Afterwards they became part of a close-knit circle of folk singers and musicians that coalesced around Pete Seeger.
Gilbert, Seeger, Hellerman, and another friend, Lee Hays, formed The Weavers in the aftermath of World War II.
'We sang songs of hope in that strange time after World War II, when already the world was preparing for Cold War,' 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.'
In 1949 Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard in Manhattan, booked them to play for two weeks during the Christmas holidays. They were an instant hit.
The Weavers stayed at the Vanguard for six months and were signed by Decca Records. For the next two years, touring, 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 Communist infiltration in the entertainment industry, was published, and it named Pete Seeger as a Communist agent.
Seeger had in fact been a member of the Communist Party earlier in his life, but was no longer a party member by 1950. Nevertheless, The Weavers were blacklisted.
Bookings dried up, their records were removed from store shelves, and the group disbanded. With her husband, Martin Weg, 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. Many ticket buyers saw the concert as an act of defiance against McCarthyism.
Although Seeger left the act soon afterwards, The Weavers continued to perform, and influenced a new generation of folk groups.
'I was at the 1955 concert at Carnegie Hall,' Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary wrote in a companion booklet to a 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!'
The Weavers performed a last reunion concert in 1980, and Gilbert occasionally appeared with Holly Near or Arlo Guthrie, but more and more she turned her creative attention to the theater. Throughout the '90s, Gilbert appeared in regional theaters performing her own one-woman show about Mary Harris, the labor organizer known as Mother Jones.
She divorced her husband, and married her longtime partner Donna Korones in 2004 in San Francisco during the brief period when Mayor Gavin Newsom opened City Hall to same-sex weddings. The marriages were later declared invalid by the California Supreme Court, but Gilbert and Korones continued to live in Mill Valley till Gilbert's death.
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