Who the F Is … Musician Ronnie Gilbert?
Who she is: An icon of the folk music and women’s music scenes.
What she’s accomplished: That word “icon” is overused these days, but it’s completely appropriate when applied to Ronnie Gilbert. A singer, writer, actress, and longtime activist for peace and human rights, Gilbert was part of the folk quartet the Weavers, alongside Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman, which did so much to popularize folk music to a broad audience in the 1950s. She also is well known for her performances with Holly Near and as a soloist.
The Weavers formed in 1947 and attained great popularity over the next few years, with music ranging from sweet love songs (Lead Belly’s “Good Night, Irene”) to anthems of social protest (Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”). Their left-wing politics eventually got them blacklisted, however, and Gilbert began a solo career as a singer and actress in the early 1960s. She recorded albums and appeared in plays on and off Broadway, and she also went to graduate school, where she earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology. She worked as a psychotherapist for several years.
In 1974, Holly Near, who had grown up with the Weavers’ music, released A Live Album, which she dedicated to Gilbert. “I had never heard of Holly Near,” Gilbert told interviewer Kate Weigand in 2004. “One usually asks permission of somebody when they’re going to do that. Holly Near never asked me for permission. Later, when I asked her, ‘How come you never asked me?’ she said, “Well, the truth is, I didn’t know you were alive.” Once Near found out Gilbert was alive and well, the two women began performing together frequently, starting in the 1980s. Their 1983 concert tour was recorded for the album Lifeline Extended, and a series of shows they did with Seeger and Arlo Guthrie is on the album H.A.R.P.: A Time to Sing.
Touring with Near, Gilbert was impressed to see women doing jobs she had always seen done by men previously — “running the electrical, doing the lights,” she recalled to Weigand. The tour personnel were almost all lesbians, and a friend asked Gilbert if she was coming out. “I remember the stupid thing I said to her,” she told Weigand. “‘I didn’t come out as a heterosexual. Why should I come out as a lesbian?’ I hadn’t been out. I hadn’t been out and I wasn’t at that point yet. I hadn’t yet met my love. But it was shortly after. What can I say about that? I didn’t care what I was thought about. That’s fine. They think I’m a lesbian? Good. It was like being on the team, you know, in a way. It didn’t matter to me. It mattered, but in a very positive way. I was really glad to be associated with these women.”
That love was Donna Korones, whom Gilbert met on the H.A.R.P. tour in the mid-1980s. Korones was connected with Near’s record label, and when she went along for part of the tour, she and Gilbert ended up sitting next to each other on a plane. “We spent the whole trip looking into each other’s eyes, talking about being mothers,” Gilbert told Weigand. “Now, you see, she was 19 years younger than me, but we shared that experience of both being mothers. And that’s where we fell in love, on that trip.”
Gilbert and Korones ran a record label, Abbe Alice Music, together for several years; one of its releases was an album from Gilbert’s 70th-birthday concert tour with Near in 1996, titled This Train Still Runs. Korones and Gilbert wed in San Francisco in 2004, during the period when Mayor Gavin Newsom had declared same-sex marriage legal, in defiance of state law. They are no longer a couple but remain close friends.
Gilbert continued adding to her résumé into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, writing and performing one-woman shows, including Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life With Songs, and Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, about the legendary labor activist. In addition to Near, she has toured with composer and keyboard artist Adrienne Torf. She has also lent her talents to documentaries, providing the voice of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Ken Burns’s 1999 series about the women’s suffrage movement, Not for Ourselves Alone, and narrating the 1991 film Forever Activists, about the surviving members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
Today, Gilbert lives in a retirement community in Northern California, where Korones is a frequent visitor. She has largely stopped performing, but she remains an activist, joining in weekly rallies with Seniors for Peace in Mill Valley, Calif. She also serves on the board of Jewish Voices for Peace.
“I spent most of my career with younger people and here I am in retirement spending time with my geriatric peers,” Gilbert told the Pacific Sun newspaper last year. “And I love it! Everybody has a story. They’ve all have had such interesting lives.”
Choice quote: “Why are we so fiercely gendered the way we are, when the fact is, the biological fact is, is that there’s very little difference, you know? I mean, early on, long before I became a lesbian, I thought, we’re — primarily, most of us are bisexual and would be if we weren’t socialized otherwise. But, hey, this younger generation, they’re crazy enough to do something about it.” — Gilbert to Weigand
For more information: Weigand’s interview with Gilbert was part of the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project at Smith College; you can read it here. Gilbert’s website contains a capsule biography, and Holly Near’s site has a timeline detailing their collaboration. The wonderful PBS documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! which details the quartet’s career, the effects of the blacklist, and a triumphant reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, is hard to find on video but is rebroadcast from time to time. It offers plenty of good music, interviews, and archival footage. See a clip below, and then a clip of Gilbert performing with Near.