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.