Ronnie Gilbert (September 7, 1926 – June 6, 2015) completed her autobiography but didn't live to see it in print. She's being remembered for many things…her work as an actress, her touring as "Mother Jones" in a one-woman show, her shows with Holly Near and others, and most certainly as one of The Weavers. As one of the few prominent women in the folk music world of the 50's, she no doubt influenced everyone from Mary Travers to Joan Baez. And for those who might wonder if they were a bit crazy for wanting to follow her into the uncertain world of the musician, well, she was a licensed psychologist!
Yes, the words "don't quit your day job" had a meaning even for someone who you'd think was making very good money off touring, and off royalties. But as Fred Hellerman (the other Jewish member of The Weavers, and now sole survivor) once said, "the airlines made the most money off the Weavers on tour." And hotels, and the managers and the owners of the venues. Hellerman also had outside work, and under various names, wrote songs and adapted old traditional songs into modern folk classics.
The Weavers, their name taken from a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, formed in 1949, in upstate New York. They kickstarted the renewed interest in folk music with several hits at the start of the 1950's, including "Goodnight Irene," and the improbable "Tzena Tzena Tzena," a Hebrew dance tune that not only could Gentiles Pete Seeger and Lee Hays sing correctly, but which had non-Jewish audiences joining in on the chorus. The foursome were hugely popular in concert until The Red Scare led to their blacklist.
They were fortunate to be able to mount a comeback in the late 50's, thanks to their manager Harold Levanthal taking a chance and booking them into Carnegie Hall. New York was a liberal town and the blacklist wasn't going to stop The Weavers there. At least, that's how it turned out. It also helped that the group really wasn't very political. They sang old songs, funny songs and sing-alongs. Ronnie recalled, “We sang songs of hope in that strange time after World War II, when already the world was preparing for Cold War.We still had the feeling that if we could sing loud enough and strong enough and hopefully enough, it would make a difference.”
Folk music shifted from old songs to passionate, topical new ones. The Kingston Trio dabbled in dark songs that mirrored current issues of lynchings and the death penalty ("Tom Dooley"), the Ivy League Trio offered the capital punishment "Ballad of Tim Evans" and Peter Paul & Mary would be the first to popularize Bob Dylan and "Blowin' In the Wind." Mary Travers knew The Weavers well; she'd been in the audience for their 1955 Carnegie Hall show.
Pete Seeger left the group in 1959, and Erik Darling and a few others tried to take his place. The Weavers toured for a while, and made a few more records, but gave up in 1964. Ronnie (born Ruth) had such talent that she could not only take the logical route of going solo, but she expanded into acting as well, having first appeared on Broadway in the 1958 production “The Man in the Glass Booth." After that she earned her M.A. in psychology. Probably her best critical acclaim came with her one-woman show as "Mother Jones," but music fans could sometimes get a surprise via a new album (usually with recording partner Holly Near) or some touring. She did some "HARP" concerts (first name of each singer) with Holly, Arlo Guthro, and Pete Seeger). The Weavers had a brief re-union for a documentary and a few concerts in November of 1980. It was just in time; Lee Hays, who had lost his legs to diabetes, died a year later, in August of 1981.
Ronnie Gilbert raised a few eyebrows when she married a woman in 2004. She had been married during The Weavers era, and had a daughter. Her frequent singing partner, Holly Near, has often been written up as a "Lesbian activist" as well as a performer. Adding to her credits, she transformed her "Mother Jones" show into a book, and here's my signed copy:
My favorite Ronnie Gilbert music is from her early solo days on Mercury. With The Weavers, she didn't solo much. Her voice was strongly identifiable in those harmonies, but the attention was usually on Seeger or Hellerman when they'd get up and do a talking blues or a folk humor piece like "The Frozen Logger." Solo, Ronnie recorded a wide range of songs, including several by Phil Ochs. Below is "The Power and the Glory," which contains that vivid caution: "Here is a land full of power and glory…(but…) she's only as rich as the poorest of the poor…"
Another line declares that America's "power shall rest on the strength of her freedom." It also rests on understanding what that word means. It doesn't mean hacking into someone's computer and posting private e-mails or documents and declaring this to be Assange-style "transparency." It doesn't mean posting some actress's nude photos copped off her cellphone, or copying entire discographies and every TV show ever made and making up lame excuses about "fair use"to toss it onto torrents. And it doesn't mean censoring somebody who said something you didn't like on Facebook, or threatening to expel somebody in a fan forum who politely shares a different point of view. It doesn't mean taping an awards show and clipping out a mild Caitlyn Jenner joke Clint Eastwood made because it "might" be offensive to some hyper-sensitive fruitcake. Or any of that crap. America's great includes a true understanding of what freedom really is.
Power and glory can't stop mortality, so here's a "so long, it's been good to know you" to the lady in the Weavers who helped popularize Woody Guthrie and so many others. Ronnie's work will continue to influence people who want to be enlightened.
"Here is a land full of power and glory…"
POWER AND THE GLORY Ronnie Gilbert