Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson is London District Secretary of the Communist Party and a social worker by profession. He has a keen interest in music, politics and real ale and is a regular festival attender

Book Review: Ronnie Gilbert, A Radical Life in Song
Monday, 01 February 2016 21:32

Book Review: Ronnie Gilbert, A Radical Life in Song

Published in Music

Steve Johnson reviews Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song, by Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert.

Those interested in the idea of music acting as an instrument for social change suffered a sad loss last year with the death of Ronnie Gilbert at the age of 88. As the woman singer in legendary left-wing US folk group “The Weavers” in the 1940s and 1950s Gilbert was an inspiration for a new generation of women singers in the 1960s including Mary Travers of “Peter, Paul and Mary” and Cass Elliot of “The Mamas and The Papas.”

Thankfully Gilbert was able to produce a memoir of her life in music and activism now published posthumously after her death. And what a rollercoaster of a life it was. Born into a household of US Jewish communists, Gilbert recalls her memory of attending a rally with Paul Robeson at the age of 10, something which set her on the road to a commitment to both singing and left-wing activism.

Moving in a milieu of radical artists in 1948 Gilbert was to become part of a quartet along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman who became The Weavers. Singing union songs like “Which Side Are You On” Gilbert became renowned for throwing her head back and singing with passion. Although the group did not envisage long term success they unexpectedly went on to become one of America’s most popular groups with their recordings of songs like “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and the Hebrew song “Tzena, Tzena” moving from folk label Vanguard to the more commercial Decca. Conventional in appearance (the male members would wear suits on stage and Gilbert an evening dress) they nonetheless continued their commitment to progressive causes appearing at the historic Peekskill concert to defend Paul Robeson against fascist and police thuggery.

But this was also the time of the House of Un-American Activities and The Weavers soon found themselves blacklisted. This was also the time when Hays and Seeger wrote their most famous song “The Hammer Song” later more popularly known as “If I Had a Hammer”. Much recorded by later artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary (themselves from radical US family backgrounds) and now sung in schools, few people now know it was written to protest about McCarthyism and the arrest and persecution of members of the CPUSA.

After The Weavers disbanded in 1955 Gilbert continued to perform appearing at the Newport folk festivals in the 1960s and famously introducing a young Bob Dylan on stage. But sensing her singing career was coming to an end she also studied drama and psychotherapy becoming a primal therapist and acting coach. Then in 1972 a young woman singer called Holly Near dedicated one of her albums to her. Near, a feminist and peace activist, had founded a small record label Redwood records to promote songs protesting at the Vietnam war and supporting environmental and feminist causes.
Gilbert’s daughter drew this to her mother’s attention and so began a long and fruitful musical collaboration between two different generations of women radical singers with a series of concert tours. Then in 1980 The Weavers manager Harold Leventhal had the idea to bring The Weavers together in two concerts at Carnegie Hall. Despite it being the age before the internet and online booking the concerts literally sold out almost immediately they were announced.

This became the feature of a much acclaimed inspiring documentary “Wasn’t That a Time” which I remember watching with barely a dry eye in 1981 when it was shown on Channel 4. What the film doesn’t show, but which Gilbert’s book does highlight, is some of the tensions between her and the male members of the group over which songs to include. These tensions to some extent reflected ones between the “traditional” left which The Weavers represented and the “new” left with more of an interest in gender and sexual politics. Gilbert wanted to include a song by Holly Near, “Something About the Women”, which celebrated solidarity between women but Fred Hellerman in particular felt uncomfortable about its radically feminist message. In the end the song was included along with their more traditional repertoire.

It seems that Gilbert herself was never drawn to joining the CPUSA or identifying with any particular left tendency, and she recounts arguments in the book with her mother, a dedicated CPUSA activist, where Gilbert criticises what she sees as the rigidity of the Party line in its attitude towards the Soviet Union. Gilbert’s mother’s response was always “the trouble with you Ronnie is you don’t read enough”.

Gilbert admits she always found the classics of Marxism-Leninism difficult and could never concentrate for very long. This did not prevent her however from being involved in every major progressive campaign throughout her lifetime. From supporting labour struggles, the civil rights movement, the campaign against the Vietnam war, the campaign against US policy in Central America and most recently as a member of “Women in Black” protesting at Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. Gilbert recalls that like many US Jewish leftists she initially identified with the state of Israel with its “socialist” kibbutz system but was soon to become disillusioned in seeing the consequences of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

Gilbert also worked as an actress mainly in theatre but with parts in TV and film and her own much acclaimed one woman show about the US union activist “Mother Jones”. Yet as well as her activism her memoir also recounts her own personal life as a child, through her parents’ divorce, as a married woman with children. then finding love with another woman after the break-up her marriage. After reading this I went and played every record and CD I had of The Weavers along with Gilbert’s later live CDs with Holly Near. For anyone interested in the relationship between music and politics this is an inspirational book by a woman, who in the words of Holly Near knew “How to Sing and What to Sing for”.


Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song is publisehd by University of California Press, £18.95.

Dylan Goes Electric
Tuesday, 15 December 2015 19:16

Dylan Goes Electric

Published in Music

50 years after Dylan went electric, controversy still rages about Bob Dylan's politics. Steve Johnson reviews the debates.

On 25th July 1965 Bob Dylan went on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. It was not his first time at the festival. In 1963 he was greeted as a voice of the young generation performing “Blowing in the Wind” in a glorious finale with fellow musicians which united Dylan’s contemporaries like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary with an older generation of folk singers like Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert from The Weavers. Followed by “We Shall Overcome” it seemed a perfect link between the new wave of folk singers and the burgeoning civil rights movement as well as paying homage to the earlier generation of folk musicians who had campaigned for peace and equality and against McCarthyism.

The response in 1965 however was different. Backed by multi- instrumentalist Al Kooper and the Paul Butterfields Blues Band Dylan went electric on a performance of “Maggie’s Farm”, and controversy still rages as to what happened next and what the significance was. It was not the first time Dylan had experimented with electric having brought out the album “Bringing it All Back Home” earlier in the year. Nor was he the only act at the festival to have played electric. Yet it is this set that is cited as a definitive moment when a break occurred between the old left folk tradition represented by Seeger, and the new younger followers of Dylan.

A number of myths have grown up around this particular narrative. The most enduring one is that Pete Seeger tried to cut through the cable wires with an axe. Anybody who has ever been to a music festival will know that an axe is not high on the list of items to pack but the narrative suits those who want to portray Seeger as representative of a dogmatic old left that wanted to dictate what form music should take.

There were however legitimate concerns from left musicians about commercialisation, and how capitalism could easily absorb protest music and thereby render it harmless. Opinions also still differ as to why some members of the audience jeered while others cheered. Singer Maria Muldaur has said it wasn’t so much Dylan going electric that caused some people to boo but the fact that the arrangements weren’t quite right. It didn’t actually sound very good!

Another myth that has grown up in the aftermath is that on Dylan’s British tour ten months later, members of the Communist Party tried to disrupt his performances culminating in the shout of “Judas” at Manchester Free Trade Hall. Various right-wing or liberal commentators have claimed that this was instigated by the Communist Party of Great Britain, led by its folk overlord Ewan MacColl. This conveniently ignores the fact that MacColl had long left the party by 1965 but bourgeois journalists rarely check their facts when they need to state a particular narrative.

Whilst there may have been some Communist Party members who were strong folk fans and who did perhaps take a purist line on what folk music should be, there were also Communist Party members who liked rock and roll, some who liked jazz and some who liked classical or a combination of genres. There was never a party line on what members should like nor was Dylan going electric ever the subject of a congress resolution. It may be some party members did heckle the electric Dylan because they thought he sounded crap, but the thought of Communists having emotions like other people and reacting accordingly is lost on commentators with a particular agenda.

It’s not however Dylan going electric in itself that should concern us, but how that moment was used by other people and how it coincided with Dylan’s own disengagement from political protest. Dylan had claimed inspiration from Woody Guthrie and some of his early songs like “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” were masterpieces of angry political commentary against the ruling establishment.

Like other young folk singers in the 1960s such as Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Judy Collins Dylan became identified as a protest singer, performing at Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. “Blowing in the Wind” having become a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan became identified with both the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. It was quite clear however that by 1965 Dylan was becoming weary of being identified as a protest singer and did not appear at any more public protests. In an interview with folk magazine “Sing Out” in 1968 when asked about the Vietnam War he replied “how do you know, I’m not as you say for the war?” It seems unlikely he was for the war but he was making a clear statement that he was now only interested in playing music.

Although he was persuaded by his old friend Phil Ochs to appear at a Concert for Allende following the coup in Chile in 1973 his drunken performance and the fact some members of the audience were there just to see Dylan upset the organisers, especially Ochs, who had befriended murdered Chilean singer Victor Jara. Sadly Ochs was to take his own life not long after, having never achieved the fame Dylan had, due to his more overt political stand.

Dylan did venture back into political song writing in 1975 with his song “Hurricane” about the unjust imprisonment of black boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. But not all his political concerns were progressive ones. In the 1970s he had developed contact with Rabbi Meir Kahane of the ultra-right-wing Jewish Defence League promising to finance the group’s activities although Kahane was to complain the money never materialised. This caused his fellow artist Mimi Farina (sister of Joan Baez) to write an open letter to him in the San Francisco Chronicle, seeking a reassurance that money from his concerts would not be helping to finance the Israeli military. Dylan still performs in Israel. But does he ever think of the Palestinians when he sings “How many years must a people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

Personally I quite like some of Dylan’s later electric output and don’t feel it necessary to take a political position on the authenticity or otherwise of anything other than acoustic. However the attitudes of some of those who welcomed that moment at Newport can be summed up by the critic Paul Nelson in “Sing Out” shortly afterwards.

Comparing Dylan and Seeger, he criticised the latter as someone who “subjugated his art through his continued insistence on a world that never was and never can be… I choose Dylan. I choose art.” In other words art is solely for art’s sake. Music should never be about the struggle for a better life and campaigning is a waste of time. It certainly suits the capitalist class to encourage young people to have that approach to the music they listen to. For that reason alone, this particular cataclysmic moment at Newport in 1965 should be viewed by the left as a retrograde step in both political and musical terms.

This article was first published in the Morning Star.