Monday, June 8, 2015

Ronnie Gilbert—Time Stills the Voice of the Woman of the Weavers

Ronnie Gilbert with The Weavers--Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman about 1950.

It seems like every time I log on to the computer this Spring word comes of the passing of some musical iconB. B. King, Jean Richie, Chicago’s own Art Thieme to name just three who were close to my heart.  Then on Friday came word that Ronnie Gilbert died at age 88 out in Mill Valley, California.  She was the distaff member of The Weavers, the quartet whose unexpected commercial success in the late 1940’s was an introduction for most Americans to folk music and which set the stage for the folk revival of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  The other original members were Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman.
Almost as famous their string of hits including a chart topping rendition of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, On Top of Old Smoky, The Midnight Special, Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight), and The Hammer Song (If I Had a Hammer), was their fall from grace when they were tagged as Communists during the Red Scare.  Ronnie and the Weavers eventually recovered from that blow, although they never regained the same commercial success and Seeger had to sweat out a possible prison sentence.  She went on to have a rich life full of notable accomplishments in several fields.
Ruth Alice Gilbert was a Red blanket baby born on September 7, 1926 two a pair of East European Jewish immigrants.  Ukrainian born Charles was a milliner and his Polish wife Sarah was a garment worker, a union activist, and a member of the Communist Party.  Her mother was her idol and role model bringing her along on picket lines and demonstrations as well as introducing her to the lively cultural life that flourished in New York City’s lively radical Jewish circle.
When Ronnie, as she became known, was ten years old her mother brought her to one of Paul Robeson’s many appearances before union audiences.  She was mesmerized and the experience was life changing.  She told an interviewer in 2004, “That was the beginning of my life as a singer and—I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but a singer, a singer with social conscience.  As teenager she began singing with choral groups in both English and Yiddish.  With a near photographic memory she learned and memorized hundreds of songs which she began sharing on picket lines and at union rallies herself.

That brought her into the broad orbit of the loose amalgamation of performers including Seeger, Hays, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Huston, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Haws, Josh White and others known as Almanac Singers.  Never a member of the group, she walked the same picket lines, sang in the same halls, and sat cross-legged on the floor at their informal sing-alongs at various members’ homes.  Seeger and Hayes looked on her as a little sister.

The Almanacs drifted apart after 1942 after following the Communist Party line from opposition to American intervention in World War II while the Hitler-Stalin Pact was in force, to militant anti-fascism after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.  Guthrie and Huston joined the Merchant Marine, Seeger was drafted and spent the war in the Army as an entertainer, and the others supported the war effort in other ways.  
When they drift back to New York after the war, and they never quite got back together.  Seeger, Guthrie, Huston, and Ives all established solo careers, the others had different lives to lead.  But a few of them and other, younger singers including Gilbert and Fred Hellerman began to hang out on Wednesday nights in Seeger’s basement.  Sometime in 1946 Seeger, Hayes, Gilbert, and Hellerman followed in the old Almanac tradition and began to play labor events for free and join in the hootenannies that were becoming a popular part of the bohemian Greenwich Village scene.  They called themselves the Weavers inspired by the 1992 play Die Weber (The Weavers) about the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844.
By 1949 the group was in danger of breaking up.  22 year old Gilbert was considering a move to California to find work and Hellerman was about to enter graduate school.  They fantasized about finding a job where they could all work together just so they could stick around and hang with Seeger in his basement.   Then, unexpectedly, the fantasy came true.  Max Gordon, proprietor of the popular jazz club the Village Vanguard unexpectedly booked The Weavers for a two week stint around Christmas when business was usually off because people were attending seasonal parties or visiting family instead of listening to jazz in a dark and smoky basement club. 
Something clicked.  Word got around the Village that something fresh was going on.  The group featured tight harmonies, lively instrumentation with Seeger on banjo and Hellerman on guitar.  Their repertoire mixed the political songs of the old Almancs with traditional American Folk music, blues, and international tunes.  The respected tradition, but we not slaves to it.  Their two week engagement was so successful that Gordon extended them another six months playing to packed houses almost every night.  By the time to gig was up the Weavers were real stars and in demand for concerts and club dates around the country.
Band leader, arranger, and Decca Records musical director Gordon Jenkins heard the Weavers at the Vanguard and signed them to the label over the opposition of the management.  On a string of hit records including Goodnight Irene and its B side Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, a song popular with Jewish settlers in Britain Palestine Mandate which reached No. 2 on the charts, Jenkins’s Orchestra, including lush strings backed up the group.  Some folk purists were outraged, but the public loved the sound and members of the group were happy to be able to expose millions to folk music.
By 1950 the Weavers were suddenly one of the biggest acts in show business, selling records by the million, touring widely, and appearing on radio and on programs on that new fad, television.   But even as they rose in popularity, there were ominous signs of trouble ahead.  The post-war Red Scare was ginning up fed by a cottage industry of right wing groups and panic peddlers.  In June of that year the right-wing journal Counterattack issued its notorious pamphlet Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television which listed 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others as Communists or involved in a Communist inspired conspiracy to subvert the broadcast media.  Listing in the pamphlet soon led to the blacklisting of those named as letter writing and phone campaigns were launched demanding their dismissal from employment.  Seeger, who was indeed a former Communist, was listed along with such luminaries as Burgess Meredith, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Leonard Bernstein, and John Henry Faulk.
At first the Weavers seemed to dodge the fall-out of the pamphlet since they had no regular employment on radio or TV.  Their records continued to sell and be played on the radio and they continued to tour.  As a precaution on advice from their manager Pete Cameron, they cut the most overtly political of Almanac Singers material from their act while keeping less specific music like Seeger’s Hammer Song and avoided performing at progressive venues and events.  Predictably this resulted in charges of being sell-outs by some on the left.
It seemed to be working.  In 1951 The Weavers were still able to make an appearance as a specialty act in their one and only feature film in the B-movie Disc Jockey.
Then in 1952 while on tour in Ohio, the group got the devastating news that FBI informant Harvey Matusow publicly named Seeger, Hays, and Gilbert as Communist Party members.  Much later he would recant many of his charges in an autobiography.  Neither man had been a Party member for years and Gilbert never had been a member.  But the damage was done.  The Weavers went to the top of the blacklist and became, almost overnight, unemployable non-persons.
Not only were they banned from any radio or TV appearances, but their records disappeared from playlists.  Panicked, Decca Records canceled their contracts and removed their records from their catalog.  Concert venues and clubs cancelled their bookings.  After a few month of struggling to find enough work to survive, the group disbanded in discouragement.

Gilbert in 1953.

Three years later after they were further denounced by their old friend and fellow Almanac member Burl Ives, Seeger and Hays were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC).  Hays took the customary path and pled the Fifth Amendment.  Seeger refused to testify citing his First Amendment rights to free speech and association.  He was charged and convicted of contempt of Congress and faced a prison sentence until an appeals court overturned the case on a technicality, but he remained effectively blacklisted from commercial radio and TV until his 1966 appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Gilbert had married dentist Martin Weg in 1950.  After the Weavers broke up the couple moved to California where their daughter Lisa was born in 1952.  They lived quietly and as Gilbert could get no singing jobs, were dependent on Weg’s practice.
But in December 1955 just months after Hays and Seeger faced HUAAC Harold Leventhal booked The Weavers into a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall.  In the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s disgrace, public opinion was beginning to shift, at least in liberal bastions like New York City.  The sellout concert turned into a joyous celebration and an act of defiance.  Vanguard Records released an LP of the concert and signed the group to a new recording contract.  Although their singles were still banned from airplay in much of the country, they were able to successfully record and sell albums, which were growing in popularity as a second wave folk music boom began to take hold.
The Weavers were able to resume touring, performing on college campuses, folk festivals, and those progressive venues that they had been forced to shun earlier even if some concerts halls remained off limits to them.  Their income never matched their days as hit makers but was enough to support them.
But there were problems.  Seeger was incensed when Vanguard booked the group to record a rock and roll side.  Predictably, it was a failure and debacle.  Then in 1957 Gilbert, Hays, and Hellerman all agreed to record a lucrative jingle for Chesterfield cigarettes.  Although they would not be identified by name in the ad, Seeger, who opposed smoking and was offended by the group selling out, quit the group after fulfilling what he felt was an obligation to his friends to abide by their majority and singing on the jingle.  The parting was amicable if slightly strained.
The Weavers continued recording and touring with Eric Darling, on Seeger’s recommendation, replacing him until 1962 and then by Frank Hamilton and Bernie Krause until Hays’s failing health caused the group to dissolve in1964.
Gilbert’s marriage ended in divorce in 1959.  She mixed some solo work with her appearances with Weavers and traveled, including a 1961 trip to Cuba that ended on the day the Federal government instituted its travel ban to that country.  The Weavers inspired a new generation, particularly the Kingston Trio, their break out commercial stars of the new folk revival who covered many of the older group’s recordings including their hit version of The Sloop John B.  Mary Travers, like Gilbert a throaty alto with power, had attended the Carnegie Hall concert, and was inspired.  Gilbert would later help mentor her and many other young musicians.
After the breakup of the Weavers, Gilbert turned to theater.  She worked with the director Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theater; and then went to Paris to collaborate with experimental director Peter Brook.  She was there for the 1968 French student uprisings and became involved by performing for the students.   Later the same year she returned to New York to appear on Broadway in The Man in the Glass Booth, Robert Shaw’s drama about the trial of a man who may or may not be a Nazi war criminal which was directed by Harold Pinter.
In the ‘70’s Gilbert earned a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology and launched a third career as a therapist in California.

The poster for the 1982 documentary film.
In 1980 Lee Hays, by this time very ill with diabetes and confined to a wheel chair, called on his old friends from The Weavers for an informal reunion at a picnic.  After a joyous afternoon of singing and reminiscing, plans were made for a public reunion concert.  The Weavers returned to Carnegie Hall for one last triumphant appearance on November 28, 1980.  Documentary footage was shot of the concert and Hays wrote and narrated the script which told the story of the group and of its travails with the blacklist.  The award winning The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time was released in 1982 after Hays’s death on August 26, 1981.
The film revived interest in Gilbert and she returned to performing and recording as a solo act.   She also began during the filming a long professional relationship with feminist singer/song writer Holly Near.  Together they recorded three albums between 1983 and 1997.  They frequently toured together and in 1984 also teamed up with Seeger and Arlo Guthrie to tour as HARP, an acronym for Holly, Arlo, Ronnie and Pete.
Gilbert also recorded solo albums and in 1991 recorded Lincoln and Liberty and When Johnny Comes Marching Home for the compilation album, Songs of the Civil War, which also included Kathy Mattea, Judy Collins, John Hartford, Hoyt Axton, and the United States Military Academy Band from West Point.
In the late 80’s and 90’s Gilbert wrote, produced, and toured in two one woman shows, one about the labor agitator Mother Jones and the other based on Studs Terkels’s book Coming of Age.  She continued to perform occasionally well into her 80’s.

Gilbert and Fred Hellerman accepting the Grammy Life Time Achievement Award for the Weavers in 2006.

In 2006 she and Hellerman accepted a Life Time Achievement Award from the Grammys on behalf of The Weavers.  She also kept her hand in as an activist working with Women in Black to protest Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
In 2004 Gilbert and Donna Korones, her manager, and life partner for more than 20 years were married at San Francisco City Hall by Mayor Gavin Newsom during a brief window when same-gender marriages were performed in the city.  The California Supreme Court later invalidated all of those weddings but the couple continued to regard themselves as wed.
It was Korones who announced Gilbert’s death of natural causes at the age of 88 on June 6 in Mill Valley, California. 

1 comment:

  1. Always on my top ten list of personal regrets is passing up the chance to attend the last Carnegie Hall concert. Somehow it seemed too expensive, too self-indulgent for a newly-arrived graduate student. Wrong. Student years come and go, the transformative event would have lived within me forever.