Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song

Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song

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Ronnie Gilbert had a long and colorful career as a singer, actor, playwright, therapist, and independent woman. Her lifelong work for political and social change was central to her role as a performer. Raised in Depression-era New York City by leftist, working-class, secular Jewish parents, Gilbert is best known as a member of the Weavers, the quartet of the 1950s and '60s that survived the blacklist and helped popularize folk music in America. Her joyous contralto and vibrant stage presence enriched the celebrated group and propelled Gilbert into a second singing career with Holly Near in the 1980s and '90s. As an actor, Gilbert explored developmental theater with Joseph Chaikin and Peter Brook and wrote and performed in ensemble and solo productions across the United States and Canada.

Ronnie Gilbert brings the political, artistic, and social issues of the era alive through song lyrics and personal stories, traversing sixty years of collaborations in life and art that span the folk revival, the Cold War blacklist, primal therapy, the back-to-the-land movement, and a rich, multigenerational family story. Much more than a memoir, Ronnie Gilbert is a unique and engaging historical document for readers interested in music, theater, American politics, the women’s movement, and left-wing activism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520253087
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/02/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ronnie Gilbert was a founding member of the Weavers, along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. She became a performer and an activist on behalf of social change in the late 1940s. Her credits include the book and stage presentation Face to Face with the Most Dangerous Woman in America, detailing the life and work of Mother Jones; Legacy, a play based on the writings of Studs Terkel; and many recordings with the Weavers, Holly Near, and others.

Read an Excerpt

Ronnie Gilbert

A Radical Life in Song

By Ronnie Gilbert


Copyright © 2015 Ronnie Gilbert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96244-6


Songs Are Dangerous

Songs are dangerous. So said HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) in the 1950s, and its anti-communist investigators did their best to prevent us from being un-American in public. Nevertheless, the Weavers endured, and on November 28, 1980, at New York's Carnegie Hall, four aging Weavers waited to walk onstage for our first reunion concert in nineteen years, and presumably our last. Actually, only three of us would walk. Lee Hays, "the 'senior member' of the Weavers," as he liked to call himself, would roll on in a wheelchair. A double amputee with a bad heart, he was losing his long battle with diabetes. As we waited for the signal to go on, I wondered how the audience would handle the shock of seeing big Lee so cut down. And how would he, grinding his teeth, face and hair already wet with sweat, handle his key role as emcee?

Movie cameras rolled and the noise of wild welcome cheering and applause flared as we entered, but it gradually subsided as we crossed Carnegie's huge stage, wheeling Lee, a blanket covering his stumps, to his microphone behind a small table. The air was electric with anticipation. Then, in the silence, a familiar baritone voice, gravelly with disuse and age, announced: "Good evening, I'm Lee Hays ... more or less." A nanosecond of quiet, and then an explosion of cheers and laughs rocked the staid old auditorium. The tension evaporated. Onstage, backstage, and in the audience, we all settled down to enjoy the concert. The years had altered us: Pete with turkey neck and his hair almost gone, Fred with a full goatee and post-middle-age paunch, and me with my plus size 3X figure. But we were survivors, and we were there anyway. If I hadn't known that Lee would be annoyed and embarrassed, I would have said in public what I know we were all thinking: that Lee's appearance that night was the most valiant and generous act of his career. To which he might have replied, as he had to a showbiz promoter twenty-five years earlier: "Act? That was no act; that was the real thing!"



I was born Ruth Alice Gilbert in September 1926 to Charles and Sarah Gilbert of Brooklyn, New York. I was a chubby, bookish child at a time when every mother imagined her darling to be the next Shirley Temple, and tap dancing lessons were practically obligatory. I loved the dancing, but it was the singing that I excelled at, and it soon became my path.

I trace my part as a "political" singer to a tradition my mother learned as a child laborer in pre–World War I Poland. Before she immigrated to America as a teenager to work in the dress factories of New York, the tradition of meetings and discussion groups, demonstrations, plays, poetry, and singing had already crossed the ocean and met its American counterpart in the songs, parodies, and street theater of the Wobblies and the American trade union movement. It was into that fine international stew that I was born.


One morning, my mother, Sarah, an activist International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union dressmaker, shook me awake.

"Get dressed, get dressed, we're going downtown to a rally."

"Oh no! Why do I have to go? It's Saturday. I want to go to the movies."

"No, Ruthie, you're coming with me today; it's something special."

The outdoor event was on Thirty-Eighth Street near Seventh Avenue, in the Manhattan garment district. I stood in the street, miserable, brooding over my mother's unfairness, jostling with grim-faced strangers for my space, and gritting my teeth at the incomprehensible speeches delivered from the back of a truck to applause and boos from the audience. I was just about to start complaining again when my mother grabbed my arm and pointed up toward the platform: "Look, Ruthie, look! There's Paul! Now! Now you're going to hear some real singing." It was as if someone had sprayed the crowd with a can of happiness. The somber faces disappeared. People shouted, cheered, laughed. A woman near us took off her gloves to sharpen her applause. I looked up to see a black man standing at the microphone smiling, taller and broader than everyone else on the platform. Finally, he leaned down to speak. Everyone hushed. "Comrades," he began with a voice so deep I felt a rumble in my chest. He said something about "my people and your people," and I looked at my mother for an explanation. She was fumbling for a handkerchief, her eyes full of tears.

Paul Robeson — actor, singing star, lawyer, football hero — in the garment district amid the short, pale, adoring, mostly Jewish garment workers! He cupped his hand behind his right ear and sang a song familiar from grade school music:

When Israel was in Egypt land, let my people go ... Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go ...

The words wrenched at me as if I'd never heard them before, carried by the thrilling sound of his voice settling around us like a velvet carpet. Now I was full of questions: What's a pharaoh? Who were the firstborn? Why did Moses threaten to kill them? My mother and I talked all the way home on the rattling BMT subway. It was the first of our lifelong gabfests about politics, power, and songs.


"Silly, how can you grow up to be a cowboy? You're a girl," chided Mama. Satisfied at last with the latest hem on my old green party dress, she pulled out the remaining pins, bit off the thread, and steadied the rickety kitchen chair for me to jump down. "Women don't do such things," she threw in for good measure, and pulled the dress off over my head, muffling my retort. "They do too, Mommy, I saw in the movies!"

I remind Daddy to give me a dime to "go see the cowboys tomorrow."

"No! No movies," he said. "Do not ask me again!" He threw down his napkin and walked out of the kitchen.

"Why is Daddy mad at me? I was only reminding him tomorrow is Saturday."

"Don't pester," Mama said. "There's no money for foolish things. Daddy had no work again this week."

"A cyclical downturn of the market," Daddy's newspaper had said. "The worst depression in a decade." This particular cycle had wheeled us into a sandpit from which there seemed to be no getting out.

"If this country had socialism like in Russia ..." Mama had said several times.

"Do they have movies in Russia, Mommy — cowboys?"

"Silly, it's not about cowboys."

Because of the Depression, we were a family always on the move, looking for cheaper rent. I rarely spent a whole semester in the same school. In a move to Queens, we stayed still long enough for adventures with my neighbors the Flynn twins, Mary and John. One Saturday, Mrs. Flynn invited me to have lunch with them. She served us sandwiches with a thick layer of peanut butter and a thin line of red jam. I took a bite and started to chew, but then I began to choke and tear up as the wad adhered to my palate and would not move. Mary stared. John laughed. Mrs. Flynn brought me a glass of milk and pounded on my back. Finally, the bolus dislodged, and I gulped it down, very embarrassed. The lesson "don't talk with food in your mouth" had impressed itself upon me forever. I had been trying to say, "This is good. I've never had peanut butter before." My family's sandwiches were always cream cheese and jelly.

After lunch, we watched Mr. Flynn cleaning something over newspapers at the dining room table — a gun, black and shiny with oil. He offered it to me. It was cold and heavy, nothing like the boys' fake guns. A flutter started at the pit of my stomach and reached all the way up to my throat, like the time I had held a dead bird in my hand. I handed it back quickly. Mr. Flynn chuckled and gave me a rag to wipe my hands. At home, I told my mother about the sandwich and Mary and John's policeman father. "Policeman? He's no policeman. He's a gangster!" It didn't seem safe to question, so I didn't. Who was Mr. Flynn? A nice person in a blue uniform who you went to if you got lost? Who'd help you find your mom? Or a bad guy like in the movies? I thought I'd ask the twins, but I never did.

Mary and John took me to church. I loved the theatrics. I imitated my friends' genuflections and self-crossings and knelt alongside them before the altar. There, the priest, in his pretty white and gold brocades, pushed a smudge of something black onto my forehead with his thumb and put a tasteless cookie on my tongue. I went home in a mood made dreamy by candles and incense. "Wash that off," my mother said, with a cluck of impatience at the ashes on the bridge of my nose. But when I told her that I wanted to go to the convent with Mary and be a nun, she said in a voice sharp with scorn: "Jewish girls don't marry Jesus!" What did getting married have to do with nuns? They had such allure, floating in pairs or threes along the street in their long black gowns; you never saw their feet move. Even gruff men said "Sister" with a kind of tenderness, as if nuns were delicate or royal — certainly special. I imagined Mary and I gliding together along Eighty-Second Street, members of that mysterious club.

But the Flynn-twin adventures ended when we again moved to a different neighborhood. Our new home was a long, third-floor apartment in a wedge-shaped building, perfect for roller-skating around, except when the barber came out of his shop screaming at us about the noise. One night, I awoke from sleep to shadowy voices from deep in the apartment — Mama, and Aunt Pauline maybe. I held my breath to hear better. "... not a man you can depend on." Mama's voice sounded like she was crying. The moon was a huge platter outside the window. Branches and leaves, traced on the windowpane, hardly moved. The rail at the foot of my bed was shiny with moonlight. I lay as still as the moon and started to sob, although I didn't know why. My mother came, sat on my bed, held me close, and told me I had had a bad dream. I knew I hadn't. I pointed to the window and whispered into her bosom, "There's somebody bad there!" "No, no, darling, there's nothing there," she said, "just the moon. See? Look how beautiful the moon is." Held safe in her arms, half-remembered scenes flashed through my mind: Choking — Daddy and I in the green waves, bouncing up and down. "My god, Charlie, why didn't you hold onto her?" Daddy teaching me to skate — metal wheels — chee, chee, chee, chee — my hand in his warm hand until the top of the street, the pavement below so smooth. Mama, sponging blood from my knee. "Why did you let go of her hand!" Daddy, biting his lip. I didn't tell her it was me, that I had let go.

After that, we moved to Judge Street, which had leafy trees and no barbershop. Our apartment had one bedroom for my sister, Irene, and me, and a pullout couch in the living room for Mama and Daddy. The kitchen was a sort of closet called a "kitchenette." Mama joined a club called the Party. They met at different people's houses. One night, it was our turn to host. I was doing my homework on the living room table, when the Party people came, three men and a woman. One man was black, and he wasn't our janitor. They talked quietly so as not to disturb me, but I heard names and places — Mussolini, Italy and Spain — like on the radio. I finished my homework, put my books together, and was saying goodnight when I heard a key in the door — it was Daddy home from work. Daddy worked hard, and many nights he came home late and tired. He said hello. Everyone said, "Hello, Mr. Gilbert." I kissed him and Mama goodnight and went to bed. Pretty soon, Daddy came in and tried to lie down on Irene's bed. "She sleeps like a wild one, all over the bed," Mama always said. Not me. I sleep very still. Sure enough, Daddy couldn't make Irene move over. He came to my bed. I pretended to be asleep. He knew I was pretending. "Ruthie, move over." He got in, turned his back to me, and fell asleep. He smelled like cigarettes. He was snoring a little. I fell asleep hearing the Party people still talking.

On Sunday mornings, Mama served us breakfast from the kitchenette stove. Daddy sat across from me at the little pull-down table, having his favorite breakfast — orange juice, bacon and eggs, Silvercup bread, and coffee. I would drink my juice and watch him eat. He would take up his knife and fork and cut into his eggs: a horizontal cut above the yolk, then a cut to the right of the yolk, then a horizontal cut below the yolk, and then a cut to the left of the yolk. Now the yolk was sitting in a small, white square and was free. Next, he cut the two whites apart, lay down his knife and fork, picked a piece of bread from the bread dish, tore it in half, and put one of the halves back. I would tell myself not to watch the next part, but I couldn't keep my eyes from following his hands. Daddy would pick up his fork in his left hand and, using the bread as a pusher, fold the free egg white in half on the fork and lift it slowly. His mouth would open very wide. Slowly, slowly, everything went in, even the white slime, which had begun to drip. He would close his mouth and chew, the fist holding the fork resting on the table. The round place on his jaw would rise and fall, rise and fall. I would go back to my orange juice, but the squishing sound behind his lips would pull my attention back.

And now he would eat the yolk. Daddy would slide the tines of his fork under the yolk and lift it from the plate. I would keep telling myself, "Don't watch this," but I would watch. Again, the mouth would slowly open wide as the hand slowly moved upward. But this time, halfway up, the slime would begin to drip, and there was no bread to catch it. I would hold my breath, wondering if the yolk would make it, and then I would see yellow oozing between the tines. I would tear my eyes away and dive into my orange juice. But there was still another egg on Daddy's plate ...


My father's father had been a blacksmith's helper in the Ukraine. In the early thirties, in Brooklyn, New York, he was the only one in my family who had a job. He hammered out metal staves for illicit wooden beer barrels. My atheist mother teased my Orthodox Jewish grandfather, "Don't forget to thank God for Prohibition." I was happy because we were spending the day with Gramma and Grampa. Grampa sometimes gave me a dime to see the children's matinee at the Meserole. But it was Saturday, the Sabbath.

"Jews don't spend money on Shabos!" he said.

"But the cowboys only ride horses, Grampa."

"Jews don't ride horses."

"Vos redst du, Mottel?" Gramma scolded. "Give the child a dime, for God's sake!"

I was eight years old, and my sister, Irene, was six. She was little — she got in free. "Be sure you hold Sister's hand!" Mama warned as we ran down the stairs. I promised I would, praying that Irene wouldn't have to go pee-pee when there was a good part. Mama read my mind!

"Make sure you both wash your hands when you go to the toilet!"

"We will, we will!"

"Come right home and don't talk to anyone on the street, and don't run, you'll fall!"

And we were out the door and up Manhattan Avenue to the Meserole Theater to watch Ken Maynard, Tom Mix, or Bob Steele flash across the screen on their fabulous horses and win against the bad guys. Then there were Busby Berkeley's movies and music! Rows and rows of silver ladies singing: "In my song of love, the moon above makes the music ..." On the way home, we passed the tobacco store's rolled-up awning hanging lopsided like a wink over thick white letters on the glass. Next door hung a sign — "Haberdashery/Gone Out Of Biznis!" An empty display case stood crooked in the middle of the floor. Suddenly, an unpleasant smell wafted into the street and jolted me. I held my breath as we hurried past the Polish butcher shop: two dead pigs' heads in the window, fury in their terrible smiles and no-eyes. Then I saw a movie poster in the window of the shoe repair shop: a lady lay on a table, her yellow hair trailing on the floor. A drooling giant ape-man held a spike over her. Two jars filled the display window of the store next door — one held a red liquid, the other green. What did "apothecary" mean? What was in those huge jars? Could they hold a person? A child?


Excerpted from Ronnie Gilbert by Ronnie Gilbert. Copyright © 2015 Ronnie Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword by Holly Near
1. Songs Are Dangerous
2. Family
3. Making My Own Way
4. The Weavers
5. Moving On
6. Theater
7. Heading West
8. British Columbia
9. The Winter Project
10. The Weavers’ Last Concert
11. Women’s Music
12. Women in Black
13. Learning to Be Old

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