As one of the four members of The Weavers, a leftie folk music ensemble in the early 1950s that topped the charts briefly until McCarthyism brought them down, Ronnie Gilbert earned a permanent place in American musical and political history. A later phase of performing with singer/songwriter Holly Near in the feminist music movement rounded out her vocal career.
Titling her memoir “A Radical Life in Song” emphasizes that phase of her story, even though she also went on to periods of work in theatre and psychotherapy. She discusses her early life that led up to the Weavers, as well as these later vocations, with dispassionate equanimity.
In a compact, loving foreword, her late-in-life collaborator Holly Near says, “A memoir isn’t a well-researched biography by a historian. It is a remembering fat with feelings. This memoir is a gloriously personal invitation to us to see how she saw it. Any of us who remember it differently can write our own damn books!”
Early in her book, Ruth Alice Gilbert, born in Brooklyn on September 7, 1926 (that would make her 90 now), establishes her strong labor roots:
“I trace my part as a ‘political’ singer to a tradition my mother learned as a child laborer in pre-World War I Poland. Before she immigrated to America as a teenager to work in the dress factories of New York, the tradition of meetings and discussion groups, demonstrations, plays, poetry, and singing had already crossed the ocean and met its American counterpart in the songs, parodies, and street theater of the Wobblies and the American trade union movement. It was into that fine international stew that I was born.”
Ronnie – her adopted name – was a child of the left. She had early exposure to “the party” to which her mother belonged all of her adult life, the leftist summer camp Wo-Chi-Ca, May Day parades, the International Workers Order (IWO) and its Yiddish school for children. Ronnie heard Paul Robeson on several occasions, and was present at the Peekskill Riot in 1949 when American neo-fascists with evident police support attacked peaceful concertgoers. She recalls this incident with vivid eyewitness authority. Her memories of growing up in the Depression years, recording both her own maturation and her parents’ divorce, are intimate and revealing. Gilbert points up episodes and feelings that, nameless then, would later confirm “the incipient little dykette in me.”
As a teenager Ronnie started appearing in plays such as Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing, as well as Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. “I was becoming committed to performance.”
During a stint of wartime work in Washington, D.C., with the Federal Housing Authority, Gilbert saw segregation firsthand. She also mixed with an informal grouping of folksingers called the Priority Ramblers, first appearing publicly with them at The Arena in Washington, later to become famous as the Arena Stage. Postwar, Gilbert connected with Pete Seeger’s organization People’s Songs and the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign.
Beginning with a months-long run at the Village Vanguard in New York City, the Weavers started making a name for themselves. Gilbert gives an informative account of the origin of their famous song “Wimoweh,” although I wish she had devoted similar attention to more of the classics in the Weavers repertoire. In time, managers and recording contracts came along, then a write-up in the anti-Red newsletter Counterattack, whose effect took awhile to manifest itself.
The Weavers went on tour, staying in fancy hotels and appearing in the nation’s most prestigious concert halls. Sometimes Dr. Marty Weg, Gilbert’s new husband, joined her for segments of the tour. Gilbert is observant in her nuanced pen-portraits of Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger, her fellow Weavers, and how they adjusted to fame and fortune, but strangely skirts the issue of Hays’ homosexuality, which she covers with his famous irascibility and drinking problems. Once the group started appearing on TV, Counterattack‘s readers went into action, eventually depriving the Weavers of their audience.
After the Weavers, theatre and therapy
After Pete left the Weavers, disgruntled with their increasing commercial appeal, they carried on with new artists and even traveled abroad for concert tours. Following a 1963 Carnegie Hall appearance, they disbanded. Ronnie and Marty had divorced by then, sharing custody of their daughter Lisa. For a time Gilbert pursued a solo career.
Gilbert spends several chapters on her work with Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre, and recounts her role in the hit play America Hurrah in 1966. On tour in Europe, Gilbert recalls with great acuity her time in Paris right in the middle of the 1968 spring insurrection of students and workers. An introduction to the new technique of primal therapy led her to suspend both her musical and theatrical involvements and devote herself to years of therapy, both as subject and practitioner. In time her journey took her to living in a remote town in British Columbia, where she practiced. Although these chapters are well written and of a certain interest in her personal evolution, these endeavors in theatre and therapy will not be what Gilbert is remembered for.
Passages movingly recount the growing senescence of her separated parents. Written as they were in the twilight of her own life, these accounts likely helped Gilbert in preparing for her own end. The father became distant and shut off, while the mother moved to Los Angeles and remained active with “the party” there. It is refreshing to read an autobiographical account that generously, though critically, acknowledges the role of Communist activists in American life.
A few pages of Chapter 10 recount the famous Weavers reunion concert in 1980, which was made into a documentary film, The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! By that time Gilbert had already aligned herself with Holly Near and her feminist followers, and as a way of freshening the Weavers’ song list, showing how au courant they still were, Gilbert offered them Near’s songs “Hay una mujer desaparecida (A Woman Has Disappeared)” and “Something About the Women.” She faced reluctance on the part of the three male Weavers, who nevertheless eventually agreed to perform them. This account is precious for indicating how strong resistance to “women’s issues” could be, even from three veteran leftists long identified with radicalism and social change. Critics, too, bristled at these numbers, although audiences were delighted at the statement the four clearly intended.
Aside from meeting Donna Korones in 1984, who would become Gilbert’s life partner for the next more than 20 years, the principal achievement of Gilbert’s latter years was a one-woman show she created about Mother Jones, at first with songs by Si Kahn, and by Jeff Langley in a second version. Even into her eighties she did a show of personal history and songs called A Radical Life with Song, touring it for benefits and club dates.
In her last years Gilbert joined groups protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Life had taken her a long way from singing the Israeli song “Tzena, Tzena” – “a kind of hiss at the girls to come out and dance with the soldiers,” as Gilbert describes it – to opposition to Israeli militarism. She includes a poignant memory of her Communist Jewish mother asking her in the early days of the state, “How can you support Israel?…. it’s not good what they’re doing there, the Zionists. They’re lining themselves up with America against the Soviet Union…. You don’t read enough!”
“And now I was out here protesting. What would Mother say? ‘Told you so?'”
Gilbert’s Radical Life in Song is an honest self-examination after a long career of enthusiastic pursuits, free of defensiveness and open to change. By May of 2015 she had finished writing, and her daughter Lisa Weg assured her, “It’s OK. You’ve done what you needed to do, and the book will have a life of its own.” Ronnie died at 88 on June 6, 2015.
The published book contains a generous photo section, and (bless you!) a fine index, though I would have liked to see a complete annotated discography. To see a clip from the film The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! featuring Gilbert and Holly Near, click here.
In related news, the death of the last surviving Weaver, Fred Hellerman, on Sept. 1 at the age of 89, has been announced.
Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song
Oakland: University of California Press, 2015
Photo: Ronnie Gilbert by Robert Bruce Livingston – Own work taken August 5, 2006 at Dance Mission, San Francisco, Public Domain.