Ronnie Gilbert dies at 88; folk singer with the Weavers

Ronnie Gilbert, who has died at 88, was the bold voice of the Weavers' folk ballads

Ronnie Gilbert, an exuberant folk singer whose career was temporarily derailed by the Red Scare of the 1950s, has died. She was 88.

Gilbert, who quickly rose to fame with the folk group the Weavers, died Saturday of natural causes at a retirement community in Mill Valley, Calif., her partner, Donna Korones, told the Associated Press.

When the Weavers were at their peak, they were known for spirited renditions of folk standards like Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", "Kumbaya" and "On Top of Old Smokey." They belted out old union rallying cries and antiwar protest songs.

In 1950, their recording of "Goodnight, Irene" sold 2 million copies in four months. Poet Carl Sandburg lauded the group and the revival of American songs that they helped pioneer. "When I hear America singing," he wrote, "the Weavers are there."

But the Weavers' first incarnation was short-lived. Their potential suddenly withered after Red Channels, a publication devoted to exposing allegedly Communist entertainers, declared Pete Seeger, the group's leader, a "subversive."

"In a very, very short time," Gilbert told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "we went from being really the hottest, most meteorically rising stars in the pop scene to being out of work."

An agent urged the Weavers to clean up their act. Stay away from hootenannies, he advised. And no more songs about the Spanish Civil War.

The group — Gilbert, Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman — fell apart in 1952, but they reunited three years later with a packed concert at Carnegie Hall. Over the next eight years, they inspired other renowned folk performers, including the Kingston Trio.

In a 1999 interview with the Boston Globe, Judy Collins said Gilbert was an inspiration "just because she was a woman singing so strongly in a man's world."

Gilbert also inspired a young singer named Holly Near. In the 1970s, they became friends and later performed together for many years.

"I remember, as a child, seeing the Weavers perform," Near told the New York Times in 1996. "And there was this woman who just stood there, threw back her head, and sang. So I went home and threw my head back for the next while. Ronnie has a huge voice and so do I."

By the time the two appeared together onstage, some of the basic technology had changed, Gilbert said in the same interview. When she was with the Weavers, the entire group clustered around a lone microphone. In later years, however, there were separate mics and an array of sound equipment on stage that hadn't existed before.

"I had to re-learn how to sing in a concert hall," Gilbert said. "I was as green as the hills of West Virginia."

One night at UC Berkeley, they had already done their encores but the crowd "was screaming for 'Goodnight Irene,'" Gilbert told the Raleigh News and Observer in 1993. Reluctantly, the two headed to their dressing rooms, trying not to break union rules that would have cost them several thousand dollars for staying late.

That's when the audience pitched in.

"There were close to 8,000 people there and they sang that song," Gilbert said, "and I want to tell you something: They sang it in tune. There was nobody leading them, and it was wonderful."

Born in New York City on Sept. 7, 1926, Gilbert was the daughter of Charles Gilbert, a Ukraine-born hat maker and Sarah Gilbert, a garment worker from Poland. Her mother took her to union rallies, and she spent summers in New Jersey at Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a "workers' childrens' camp" run by the Communist-affiliated International Workers Order.

In her late teens, Gilbert dove into New York's fledgling folk scene, performing on street corners, at union halls and in cafes. In 1949, the newly formed Weavers were booked for two weeks at the Village Vanguard. They stayed for six months.

Gilbert, "a protean and brilliant alto," could do remarkable things with her voice, wrote Robert Cantwell in his 1996 book, "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival." It was "by turns, gentle as a nursing mother's, innocent as a child's, lusty as the Wife of Bath's, and stern as a suffragette's."

In the 1960s, Gilbert became an avant-garde actress, performing off-Broadway in plays directed by Joseph Chaikin. She later moved to San Francisco and received a master's degree in clinical psychology from Lone Mountain College. She practiced in the Bay Area and, then, in a Canadian mining town 450 miles north of Vancouver.

Lured by performing, she returned to the U.S. and a sold-out 1980 Weavers reunion at Carnegie Hall.

"We were amazed," she told The Times in 1985. "Our manager joked that the concert would probably be a financial failure because we'd have to give so many senior citizen discounts. But there were all ages there, all ages."

Gilbert's survivors include Korones, her partner of 30 years; and her daughter, Lisa. She was divorced from Martin Weg in 1959.

An ardent feminist, Gilbert staged a one-woman show called "Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America." The superlative was pinned on the legendary labor activist by a federal prosecutor.

Gilbert also performed in an autobiographical show, "Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song." A memoir with the same title is to be published this fall.

Twitter: @schawkins

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