Ronnie Gilbert, an original member of the legendary folk group, the Weavers, died on June 7 at the age of 88. While the prodigiously talented Pete Seeger was clearly the most recognizable member of the group (Fred Hellerman and Lee Hays were the other two members), it was Ronnie Gilbert who gave the Weavers their lyrical elegance.
While Gilbert could be as playful and whimsical as the rest of the gang, her contralto voice projected a haunting solemnity that stood out. Listen to her segment on the Weaver’s version of the great Leadbelly song, “Goodnight, Irene.” Her voice is so achingly “declarative,” it’s heartbreaking. Wonderful song, terrific singer. (Fun fact: Ken Kesey’s book, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” takes its title from a “Goodnight, Irene” lyric.)
The daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Gilbert was born and raised in New York City. Her mother was a seamstress (just as the iconic Mary “Mother Jones” Harris was) and labor union advocate, and her father was a factory worker. Gilbert once said that it was listening to the “subversive” lyrics of Paul Robeson on the radio, when she was a kid, that inspired her to become a folk singer.
Anyone conversant in Cold War history and its attendant “Red Scare,” is aware of what happened to the Weavers. Suspecting this folk group of being too “leftwing,” the merchants of hatred and fear, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, smeared them as “Communists” and had them blacklisted.
Despite their hit songs (Goodnight, Irene, Wimoweh, On Top of Old Smokey, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, et al), they were banned from appearing on radio or television, and their recording contract with Decca Records was abruptly cancelled. They went from being one of the most popular post-war groups in America to being almost totally ostracized, all the result of America’s ideological ignorance and hypocritical capacity for issuing punishment.
Basically, the Weavers were destroyed. The group formally disbanded in 1953. But even with the ruination of her music career, the irrepressible Ronnie Gilbert went on to become a fully committed social activist and organizer, traveling to Cuba, in 1961, and visiting Paris, France, in the turbulent year of 1968. She later earned a master’s degree in psychology and became a psychotherapist.
When I was a kid, a friend’s parents took me to a Pete Seeger concert in Pasadena, California. These people were folk music aficionados, owning records by Odetta, Baez, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, etc. Of course, by this time the Weavers had long since been dissolved and Seeger was working as a solo performer.
During the show (which he performed on a homemade banjo), Seeger made a couple of memorable announcements. The first was addressed to Ronnie Gilbert. Without any explanation or introductory words, he issued a shout-out to her, wishing her “good luck.” Apparently, she was either recovering from an illness or had been laid low by some personal problem; we had no idea. In any event, at the mention of Ronnie’s name, the audience cheered.
The second thing Seeger did was remind us that when you write a song, you have no idea where it will wind up, which made it analogous, in his words, to “raising a child.” He said the next song was one he had written but hadn’t bothered to copyright. Still, its success had made him as happy as a “proud parent.”
He then proceeded to sing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (which was became a big hit by the Kingston Trio). When the audience heard the opening chords, they cheered wildly.
Celebrity activists are to be commended. After all, it would be a lot easier to sit poolside and count their money than to march in a rally or travel to a Third World country and promote a cause. But it’s even more impressive when this “activism” is done by celebs who aren’t millionaires, and is done without fanfare or the expectation of praise. Rest in peace, Ronnie Gilbert. You done good.
David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book, “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories,” will be published in June. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org