Folk singer with the Weavers

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By Steve Chawkins steve.chawkins@la­times.com Twit­ter: @schawkins

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 UnionTri­bune, “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 Gil- bert 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 re­learn 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 Ukrainian-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 “work- ers’ chil­dren’s camp” run by the Com­mu­nist-af­fil­i­ated In­ter­na­tional Work­ers Or­der.

In her late teens, Gil­bert dived into New York’s f ledgling 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, 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.

Richard Drew As­so­ci­ated Press

‘SHE WAS A WOMAN SINGING SO STRONGLY IN A MAN’S WORLD’ In Novem­ber 1980, the Weavers per­form in a 25th an­niver­sary re­u­nion con­cert at Carnegie Hall. Ron­nie Gil­bert, third from left, is joined by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Heller­man.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.