You do remember The Weavers….on those little 45 records?
Then there were folksingers: Ronnie Gilbert with Holly Near in concert. Gilbert, The Weavers gal singer, was the artist we wanted to hear. Holly Near, clearly the college’s audience’s favorite, was younger; we, totally clueless about her.
Ronnie Gilbert, at 88, died on June 6 2015.
I’m fairly certain the Gilbert/Near concert was performed at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium – probably in the early 1980s. Age-wise, we were well deep into our forties, surrounded by college students, who thought us contempories of Methuselah. All generations think that, right?
Leaving a huge hole in the folk-singing world, Gilbert’s death reminds us of her place with other Weavers (Pete Seeger, grumpy Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman). They seriously paved the highway for other folk- celebs to succeed: The Kingston Trio – the Limeliters – Peter, Paul, & Mary – Bob Dylan – Phil Ochs – even Joan Baez. The Weavers group cut through the cultural brush making a path for these later talents.
I joined hundreds of thousands in the 40s, early 50s who were totally enamored by the quartet. “Goodnight, Irene” their first hit; “On Top of Old Smokey”; Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been good to Know Yuh”; “If I Had a Hammer”; “Wimoweh” from Africa; and my favorite: Tzena Tzena Tzena, a Hebrew song popular in Israel. Some of these songs, especially “We Shall Overcome” would become anthems for the civil rights movement – a decade away.
Exchanging affectionate letters with Gilbert following the Lisner concert, we discovered her as a sensitive, generous person. A potential dinner invitation was discussed – she, somewhat receptive, indicated a future time.
Anyone who understood Gilbert’s harmony, knew her contralto lent a bold female voice to the group. The four became the quartet that lifted a post- World War II folk musical revival. Becoming a household name with chart topping recordings, it was clear that they merged their singing careers with a “social conscious mission.” Later, Gilbert shared with the San Francisco Chronicle that she was taken by her Communist mother to a labor rally where singer Paul Robeson was performing – “That was the beginning of my life as a singer.”
As the Cold War began to make its mark in America’s politics, and culture, Gilbert is quoted: “We still had the feeling that if we could sing loud enough, and strong enough, and hopefully enough, it would make a difference.” Alas, the Weaver hits were over by 1952 when the fervor of the anti-communist vehemence reached new heights; the blacklisting episodes followed.
Ronnie Gilbert, bitter, solely determined to reunite in a Weavers concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1955, initiated touring appearances for another decade. The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time, a documentary movie project, was produced while preparing for a 1980 Concert-return to Carnegie Hall – on Christmas Eve. The film brought new insights to a wheel-chaired Lee Hayes, and the other three. Gilbert’s impact on the group was evident. It was a reunion with Seeger, Hays, and Hellerman.
Hays sang the lyrics: “First Nixon – then Ford – then Carter – now Reagan….this too shall pass.” Perhaps Lee’s optimism was premature. Carnegie Hall, in 1980, was a sell-out. Harold Leventhal, their charming curmudgeon manager, had pulled it off again. Weavers’ audiences were always large, loyal – by then, it bordered on cultural tribalism. TV newsman, Harry Reasoner, never missed one.
I suppose my affection, admiration for the Weavers was counter cultural, although I couldn’t define it at the time. The NYT recently reported: “their voices, especially Ms. Gilbert’s, were powerful, their harmonies were distinctive and their attitude was an enthusiastic embrace of the listener.”
From Lisner Hall at George Washington…to recent years, Gilbert remained relevant – on the lecture circuit. She presented workshops, performances, and lectures – on activism, the performing arts, and social movements. Gilbert was the voice of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Ken Burns’s documentary, Not For Ourselves Alone. She earlier served as narrator for and appearing in The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time!
Maybe it’s my stubborn nostalgia, possibly clinging to a perverse obsession – but. Ronnie Gilbert; The Weavers; Lee Hays and Company; Harold Leventhal; Carnegie Hall, blacklisting – all represented the road traveled less. Thankfully, it was there…a well-worn path taken in the greatest American tradition.
Goodnight Irene….good night Ronnie Gilbert…I’ll see you in my dreams.