Ronnie Gilbert

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Ronnie Gilbert
Gilbert in August 2006
Gilbert in August 2006
Background information
Birth nameRuth Alice Gilbert
Born(1926-09-07)September 7, 1926
Brooklyn, New York, New York, U.S.
DiedJune 6, 2015(2015-06-06) (aged 88)
Mill Valley, California, U.S.
GenresAmerican folk music, Protest music, Americana
  • Musician
  • singer
  • songwriter
  • actress
  • political activist

Ruth Alice Gilbert (September 7, 1926 – June 6, 2015)[1] as stage name Ronnie Gilbert, was an American folk singer, songwriter, actress and political activist. She was one of the original members of the music quartet the Weavers, as a contralto with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman.

Early life[edit]

Gilbert was born in Brooklyn, New York City[1] and considered herself a native New Yorker her whole life.[2] Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.[3] Her mother, Sarah, came from Warsaw, Poland[4] and was a dressmaker and trade unionist, and her father, Charles Gilbert, came from Ukraine and was a factory worker.[1][2][5][6]

Gilbert came to Washington, D.C., during World War II. She encountered Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie and other folk singers. She went to Anacostia High School. She was almost expelled because of her resistance to participating in a minstrel show. She performed in the early 1940s with the Priority Ramblers before founding the Weavers with Pete Seeger.[6]


Gilbert's singing was characterized as "a crystalline, bold contralto."[1]

Her voice is heard, blending with and rising over the others, in Weavers tracks such as "This Land Is Your Land", "If I Had a Hammer", "On Top of Old Smoky", "Goodnight, Irene", "Kisses Sweeter than Wine", and "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena".[6]

Early music and activism[edit]

The Weavers were an influential folk-singing group that was blacklisted in the early 1950s, during a period of widespread anti-communist hysteria, because of the group's left-wing sympathies. Following the Weavers' dissolution in 1953 due to the blacklist,[7] she continued her activism on a personal level, traveling to Cuba in 1961 on a trip that brought her back to the United States on the same day that country banned travel to Cuba. She also participated in the Parisian protests of 1968 after traveling to that country to work with British theatrical director Peter Brook.[8]

Gilbert moved to Berkeley in 1971 and began to learn and offer therapy. The next year, she entered graduate school. By 1974, she had earned an MA in clinical psychology and worked as a therapist for a few years.[6][9]

Music with Holly Near and HARP[edit]

In 1974, Holly Near dedicated her album A Live Album to Gilbert.[10] At the time, Near didn't even know if she was still alive, so she didn't ask Gilbert for permission.[9] Gilbert found out about the dedication from her daughter and met Near soon after. This is how Gilbert describes meeting Near:

I told her about how her record was astonishing to me ... I was so moved. First I was kind of teed off about it and then ... I was just in tears the whole time, and figured out this has been going on while I haven't been looking ... This consciousness, this woman consciousness has been happening and was happening in music ... Of course, I loved her because she was ... the coming together of all the things I loved in music, from folk music to Broadway ... she had that kind of delivery and voice and she could handle pretty much anything. It was like she had the social consciousness in a new contemporary way that the Weavers had.[9]

In 1980, part of The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! was filmed in the loft Gilbert was living in. The film-maker left the camera running after the Near interview, capturing Near and Gilbert as they sang "Hay Una Mujer." That song was left in the film and some of the audience called Near's record company to see if/when she and Gilbert would be touring. Gilbert says that this "jump started [her and Near] into a musical partnership."[9] They toured together nationally in 1983 for their first live album, Lifeline.[10]

Near and Gilbert joined Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger for the 1984 quartet album HARP (an acronym for "Holly, Arlo, Ronnie, and Pete").[1] During this tour, Gilbert met and fell in love with her future wife, Donna Korones. She came out as a lesbian soon after she started dating Korones.[9]

In 1985, Gilbert performed with Near, Guthrie, and Seeger at the Ohio State Fair. She performed at the 10th Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and the first Redwood Festival with Near. She also performed at the Vancouver Folk Festival, the National Women's Music Festival, and Sisterfire.[10]

in 1986 she and Near recorded Singing With You.[10]

During that period Gilbert wrote and appeared in a one-woman show about Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, the Irish-American activist and labor organizer, and in a second work based on author Studs Terkel's book, Coming of Age.[8][11]

Later music and activism[edit]

In 1991, Gilbert recorded "Lincoln and Liberty" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" for the compilation album, Songs of the Civil War.[citation needed]

In 1992, she accompanied the Vancouver Men's Chorus on the song Music in My Mother's House from their album Signature.[citation needed]

"Songs are dangerous, songs are subversive and can change your life." -- Ronnie Gilbert on the effects of hearing Paul Robeson sing when she was 10[12]

She continued to tour and appear in plays, folk festivals, and music festivals well into her 80s. She continued her protest work, participating in groups such as Women in Black to protest Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in addition to United States policies in the middle-east.[12][13] In 2006, the Weavers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Gilbert and Hellerman accepted the award. Pete Seeger was unable to attend the ceremony, and Hays had died in 1981. Seeger died in 2014.[14]

Personal life[edit]

Gilbert was married to Martin Weg from 1950 until 1959, and the couple have one daughter, Lisa (born 1952).[8] Their marriage ended in divorce.[1] In 2004, Gilbert married her partner of almost two decades and her manager, Donna Korones, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom temporarily legalized gay marriage in San Francisco.[15] Gilbert moved to Caspar, California, in 2006.[16]

Gilbert died on June 6, 2015, at a nursing facility in Mill Valley, California, from natural causes, at age 88.[1][6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Weber, Bruce (June 6, 2015). "Ronnie Gilbert, Folk Singer for the Weavers, Dies at 88". Obituary. New York Times. Retrieved June 7, 2015.
  2. ^ a b ronnie gilbert "Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life With Songs" Archived August 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Ronnie Gilbert, folk singer - obituary". The Telegraph. June 7, 2015. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
  4. ^ Schofield, Derek (June 8, 2016). "Ronnie Gilbert obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
  5. ^ Ronnie Gilbert profile at
  6. ^ a b c d e Langer, Emily (June 8, 2015). "Ronnie Gilbert, founding member of the Weavers, dies at 88". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
  7. ^ Leslie Kandell. "Together Again: Two Women With a Multiplicity of Messages" (Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert concert tour), The New York Times, September 22, 1996.
  8. ^ a b c Amy Bank and Melissa Howden. Holly/Ronnie Timeline – a timeline showing personal activism in relation to historical events, 1983, 1986 Redwood Records.
  9. ^ a b c d e Gilbert, Ronnie (March 10, 2004). "Ronnie Gilbert" (PDF) (Interview). Interviewed by Kate Weigand. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Voices of Feminism Oral History Project Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
  10. ^ a b c d Banks, Amy; Howden, Melissa (1986). "Holly & Ronnie: A Timeline". Holly Near. Archived from the original on December 31, 2010.
  11. ^ Barbara McKenna. "Folksinger-activist presents public lecture at UCSC" Archived August 8, 2007, at the Wayback Machine,, November 15, 1999
  12. ^ a b Michael Hochanadel. "Ronnie Gilbert tells and sings her story — and our history" Archived June 9, 2007, at the Wayback Machine,, May 7, 2005.
  13. ^ Ronnie Gilbert. "A New Weaver's Song" (on the origins of her participation in Women in Black), The Progressive, February 2006.
  14. ^ "Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94 New York Times, January 2014
  15. ^ Rachel Gordon. "State lawmaker joins S.F.'s gay wedding waltz: Republicans demand Newsom halt same-sex marriages and focus on city's 'critical issues,'", San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2004, pg. A11.
  16. ^ Levene, Bruce (Summer 2009), An Interview With Ronnie Gilbert (PDF), Mendocino Art Center.

External links[edit]