RONNIE GILBERT, folk singer, political activist and the female voice of one of the seminal groups of the post–war US folk revival, the Weavers, has died in San Francisco aged 88.
Born in New York to Jewish immigrant stock, her first diverse musical influences were from her parents.
Aged just 10 mum took her to Communist Party rallies where she heard Paul Robeson sing Joe Hill and other labour movement anthems.
“It taught me songs are dangerous, songs are subversive and can change your life,” she would remember later.
“Dad had different tastes, he loved what he described as Jewish musicals. He taught me his favourite song. Yes, We Have No Bananas. I learned about having fun with music.”
Gilbert, along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, formed the Weavers and the group helped spark a national folk revival with hit recordings of Woody Guthrie’s So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh and Pete Seeger and Lee Hay’s If I Had a Hammer.
Their version of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene was number one in the charts for 13 weeks.
The Weavers sang on picket lines, at union rallies and left-wing fundraisers before becoming enormously popular with wider audiences disenchanted with a US that seemed to be trading WWII for a new cold war.
“We sang songs of hope in that strange time after WWII, when already the world was preparing for cold war,” Gilbert said in a 1982 interview.
“We still had the feeling that if we could sing loud enough and strong enough and hopefully enough, it would make a difference.”
Make a huge difference they did. The four, with Gilbert’s sweet and strong contralto singing out, launched a vast protest song movement that helped spawn performers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary and a hundred more who are singing still.
Despite growing popularity among audiences, the anti-communist witch-hunts came thick and fast. The group’s success had to battle against the inevitable blacklisting by record companies and TV, radio and music venues.
The pressure was relentless. A Weavers’ planned television show was cancelled, the group were placed under FBI surveillance and Seeger and Hays were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In 1951 the Weavers lost their recording contract with Decca, and by 1953, unable to book most concert venues and banned from appearing on television and radio, they disbanded.
They came together again in December 1955 and filled every seat in a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Not only was the concert a huge success but independent record label Vanguard released a live album of the event and signed the group for further recordings.
Despite a popular nationwide concert tour, the red-baiting carried on. On January 2 1962, they were told by NBC that their appearance on the Jack Paar TV Show would be cancelled unless they signed a statement disavowing the Communist Party. Gilbert and the other Weavers refused to sign.
The group disbanded in 1964, but Gilbert and the other three Weavers occasionally played and sang together during the next 16 years.
In 1980, a dying Lee Hays approached the others for one last get-together.
An informal picnic led to a return to Carnegie Hall on November 28 1980. It would the Weavers’ last ever major performance except for a benefit for Pete Seeger’s Hudson River Clearwater campaign.
Hays would be dead in just a few months, but fortunately the Carnegie Hall concert and the build-up to it became the documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!
Gilbert, however, didn’t stop singing or protesting. She went on to work variously as a stage actor, a solo singer and then a psychologist and therapist.
Various younger singers have recorded and performed with her. She made three albums with Holly Near (above). She, Seeger and Arlo Guthrie have made an album together.
Her self-authored one-woman show about US labour organiser Mary Harris “Mother” Jones played to packed houses.
Gilbert continued to tour and appear in plays, folk festivals and Jewish music festivals well into her eighties.
She also continued her political life, supporting groups such as Women in Black, opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
In 2006, Gilbert and Hellerman accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys on behalf of all the Weavers.
On hearing the sad news about Gilbert I guess there will be a lot of us tonight who listen to, and join in with, a few old and familiar Weavers tracks.
“So long Ronnie, it really was good to know yuh.”
This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 9 June 2015