Singer Ronnie Gilbert, who helped catalyze the folk revolution of the 1960s as one fourth of the Weavers, died of natural causes on Saturday in a retirement community outside of San Francisco, The New York Times reports. Her longtime partner, Donna Korones, confirmed the death. She was 88.
Gilbert’s striking contralto was a distinct voice in a quartet full of them. The Weavers, which also included Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, drew from various strains of American and global roots music, but were best known for their renditions of folk standards like “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” and Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene.”
The Weavers’ first concerts were often free performances at union meetings and on picket lines. In 1949, about to break up, they were offered a two week residency at the Village Vanguard in New York City that proved so successful they stayed for six months. The stint earned the Weavers a deal with Decca Records, which led to television and radio appearances, and extensive touring.
Amidst their success, the group maintained their progressive and leftist politics, which drew the eye and ire of those in the anti-communist movement of the 1950s. In 1951, the Weavers were investigated by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which sought to probe potentially subversive citizen threats, and soon they were blacklisted from performing and recording.
The group split, and Gilbert moved to California with her then-husband to start a family. But in 1955, the Weavers’ manager, Harold Leventhal, arranged a concert at Carnegie Hall that sold out and revitalized interest in the band. While Seeger would leave the Weavers several years later, Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman and a series of replacement singers continued to perform and record until 1964. By then group’s influence was already being heard in the music of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Limeliters, the Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan.
Over the next several decades, Gilbert worked as an actress and therapist, and eventually returned to music as well. In 1980, she reunited with the Weavers at Carnegie Hall, and in 1984 she toured with Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Holly Near in a group called HARP. Her memoir, Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song, will be published posthumously this fall.
Gilbert was born in Brooklyn in 1926. Her father, Charles, was a milliner from the Ukraine and her mother, Sarah, was a garment worker and union activist from Poland. When Gilbert was around 10, her mother took her to a union rally where singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson sang.
In a 2004 interview for Voices of Feminism, an oral history project at Smith College, Gilbert said, “That was the beginning of my life as a singer and a — I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but a singer, a singer with social conscience, let’s say.”