Ronnie Gilbert wows ‘em again!

July 1, 1993

Ronnie Gilbert wows ‘em again!

By Susan Johnson, Copy Editor

Before she could even say a word, they gave her a standing ovation.

Such was the respect and love that flowed between the audience and Ronnie Gilbert on the evening of March 22, at the Unitarian Universalist Church. The venerable Ms. Gilbert did not disappoint them as she kept a crowd of approximately 200 enthralled

while she shared the highlights of her exciting life.

As a septuagenarian and a veteran of political change, this lady had quite a story to tell, and Charlotte’s Web was proud to host her.

“In 1952,” she began, “another time when the government was busy hunting terrorists—the McCarthy era—Pete Seeger, my singing partner, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer some charges that he was singing subversive songs. One of the songs was ‘Wasn’t That a Time!’… The last line was stolen from Thomas Paine: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls.’”

The Weavers were headed for stardom until the suspicious minds in government branded them as “subversive” for their social activism. They were blacklisted, and suddenly all doors were closed to them. “Songs are subversive,” Gilbert admitted. “People’s lives change over songs… That happened to me when I was 10 years old.”

She recalled going to the movies on Saturday afternoon and listening to the Sons of the Pioneers or Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Throughout her speech, she illustrated her story with snatches of song lyrics. One Saturday when she was 10, her mother took her to the Garment District in New York. “There was a street rally,” she said, “and all the factory employees, thousands of sewing machine workers were there—Jews mostly, or people from Eastern Europe… we were standing in the street with thousands of people, and there was a big platform. Everyone was listening… I could see that something serious was going on.”

A tall black man on the platform addressed the workers and “spoke words that made me shiver: ‘Your people and mine are forever connected by the pain of our slavery.’” It was the awakening of Gilbert’s social conscience.

She recalled that Paul Runsen was among the garment workers, and he sang a stirring rendition of “Let My People Go!” It was the

initial spark for her life as a singer. “Mother was a socialist, actually a Communist—which was perfectly legal in those days,” Gilbert noted. Her mother sent her to “a wonderful summer camp” for children of workers. “We were fighting against the Fascist dictators [in World War II] and thrilled to hear Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America’ on the radio.”

Education—in school and in life

At 16, Gilbert dropped out of high school and got a job with a housing board. “The nation’s capital was as segregated as any

Southern town,” she recalled. “After a year, I went back to school and graduated.” (She wrote a paper about the segregated conditions and the poverty, which her teacher did not appreciate.) By the time she got out of high school, the war was coming to an end.

“It took a long time before the awfulness of the war got through to me,” she admitted. She recalled the radio reporters with their “well-modulated voices.” The war news was “sanitized” for the public, she felt. The news reels at the movies “showed planes in the sky flying in formation and things dropping out of them that looked like elongated footballs. Was it imagination that it never seemed real to me?”

She thought “Franklin Delano Roosevelt seemed to have some compassion for labor—or at least his wife, Eleanor, did. The

United Auto Workers had grown strong. Segregation in the armed forces would end soon… Communists, Socialists, Russians and capitalist America had found a way to help each other. They would be partners in the United Nations.”

She noted that Roosevelt “had led us out of Depression with a social innovation called the New Deal.” He died in 1945, a month before Germany surrendered, and it was Harry Truman who “gave the OK to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and in August that year (1945), 110,000 people in the city of Hiroshima were incinerated; 40,000 more did not make it through December. President Truman called the accomplishment of the bombing ‘a billion dollar gamble that paid off.’ Did he comprehend what he let loose? Maybe not. We ordinary citizens didn’t comprehend the ‘mushroom cloud.’ What

could you say?… Most Americans were just glad the war was over.”

A new kind of war

In 1947, when Ronnie was 21, she realized “suddenly we were at war again, only this time, it was a Cold War, not with bullets… The Soviets wanted to destroy our way of life and impose their ideology on us. How did the witch hunt for subversives get going so

fast in this country? It all started with President Truman’s ‘loyalty words.’” Certain people were asked to take loyalty oaths to their country. If a person was reported, he could be investigated—a not unusual occurrence. “Suddenly, anti-Communists who used to be called ‘the lunatic fringe’ were calling the shots,” Gilbert remembered. “The unions were among the first to capitulate… What was happening to the tradition of the

investigative newsman? Journalism has never recovered from the Cold War… You were supposed to turn over the names of your friends to the FBI… Some folks stood up to them and suffered the consequences”—such as her friend, Pete Seeger.

People began attending concerts called “hootenannies” around the country—“people were singing, clapping and having a good time.” Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert were part of a group that participated in these events. “So Fred and I—callow youths—began to tag along with Paul Robeson.” She told of a frightening experience that happened when they were leaving a concert in Peekskill, N.Y. As the concert ended, everyone was told to leave quickly. The bus she was on was stopped by a state trooper, who stood by and let people throw rocks at the bus. Glass was broken, there was no room to move out of the way, and people were frightened and injured. Finally, the bus was allowed to leave. Miraculously, no one was killed.

Into the limelight—and out

Then Gilbert told how she and the Weavers made the charts—the first group to take folk songs into the marketplace.

“Lee Hays said, ‘It’s not an act—it’s real.’ We played Las Vegas and Reno—vaudeville was not quite dead. Pete Seeger was rather uncomfortable. Lee Hays was having a high old time. Money? I was so happy to be doing something that I loved—I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” But the House Un-American Activities Committee was quick to burst the bubble of success. After false testimony was given against the Weavers, the recording companies refused to deal with them. Radio stations wouldn’t play their songs.

Gilbert decided to get on with her personal life. She and her husband moved to Southern California and settled into suburbia. But

the year her daughter, Lisa, was born was the year the Rosenbergs were executed. “I kept myself busy singing in the shower,” Gilbert

recalled. “It never occurred to me that the Weavers weren’t finished. But a year after Lisa was born, a letter came, talking about doing a Weavers concert.”

She thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Then, a year later, there was another letter. “I know there’s an audience here,” her friend Harold Hill insisted. So she flew east to meet him. “but the place wouldn’t book us, so Harold booked Carnegie Hall. Christmas 1955—hundreds filled Carnegie Hall… Later, we sang ‘Tzena Tzena Tzena’ and introduced the new state of Israel to the country.” They went to the Middle East, and the Weavers sang from Dan to Beersheba.

Taking a new direction in life

The Weavers disbanded in 1963—much to the dismay of fans. “We went our separate ways,” she recalled. “I did a little singing for

a while, and then I found a home in the theater. I also got a master’s degree in therapy. In 1980, the Weavers revisited Carnegie Hall—old guys now, all of us. Lee Hays rolled on stage in a wheelchair, both legs amputated due to diabetes… A great documentary came out of that concert called ‘Wasn’t That a Time!’”

Once again, they went on tour; there were so many changes. She and Holly Near toured with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (HARP).

Ronnie wrote a play about Mother Jones—“the most dangerous woman in America.”

“We all had a hand in writing,” she said. “Pete and Lee between the two of them claimed to have written ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ from one of those old Irish songs, and I’m really pissed that they didn’t give me credit,” she laughed. “But the only thing I wrote on my own is Mother Jones.”

Questions and answers

Q: How did she develop her voice, still rich and resonant after all these years?

A: “When I was about 11 years old, I was sent to visit part of my mother’s family in Springfield, Mo. I was very shy and

hung around the house a lot. My aunt had three daughters, and her middle daughter, Ruth, was a voice student. She would come home and sing. I listened, and when she was gone, I would go over and try those songs. Some people said Ronnie Gilbert had a trained voice. I don’t have a trained voice. I tried to copy my cousin Ruth.”

Q: Why did she go to British Columbia?

A: “It was the ’70s, and I really never thought I would go back to performing. I was looking for something else in my life…

I worked with a group of therapists and went to college and got a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and got into group practice. I was doing primal therapy.” Some people came down from British Columbia for five months and invited her to come back and join them in their practice.

“They showed me pictures of the place,” she recalled, “and that’s what I did for the summer—I thought I was in some kind of movie set.” They had a little theater where “people dressed up in Western clothes, Japanese ladies with parasols…” In fact, that was one of the places where Japanese had been interned during the war, and some of them stayed on.

“They were great people there,” she said. “That’s where I spent several years—doing therapy, and then got back into theater. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got out. My daughter has been there for the last nine years. She now is program director for

a lighthouse. She runs the volunteer program, does exhibits for the school children, and just two years ago, she managed to adopt a baby girl, and I am now a granny.”

Q: What kind of music does she like now?

A: “Mozart, Bach. I don’t listen to much current music, but go to a lot of concerts. I don’t buy records and CDs anymore. As time goes on, I just want to hear instrumental music.” There is also a string quartet in San Francisco that she enjoys.

Q: Were you really having as much fun as it seemed?

A: “When we were singing, we had the best fun. We loved to sing. I felt like I was in heaven with those guys. But when we weren’t singing (laughs)—considering that we were four different people—it was giving of itself that was more important than any

one of us. We were able to stay together.”

Q: How do you feel about the war?

A: “The war is beyond my capacity to understand—that sociopathic mind that seems to have taken over the administration.

Who’s running the world? These psychopaths and at least half the country doesn’t realize what they’re running into. But at least

this last time, the world rose up. I was in such despair, thinking, what was happening to humanity? We’re so isolated at the computer… then the whole world rises up and says, ‘No, no!’ Like being with you all—it was like coming to life again. We’re here.”

The crowd agreed with their hearty applause. Gilbert says she has a couple of dates lined up, but she wanted to come here for the peace coalition. She closed with the traditional “Goodnight, Irene” with all the audience singing along.

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