Ronnie Gilbert, singer with the Weavers, dies aged 88

June 7th, 2015 | by staff
Ronnie Gilbert, singer with the Weavers, dies aged 88
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 The Weavers perform in a 25th Anniversary reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1980. From left are: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman

The Weavers perform in a 25th Anniversary reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1980. From left are: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman Photo: AP

Singer Ronnie Gilbert, the female member of the influential 1950s folk quartet the Weavers, has died aged 88.

With the Weavers, whose other members were Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, Gilbert helped trigger a national folk revival with hit recordings of Goodnight Irene, Tzena Tzena Tzena, On Top of Old Smokey, If I Had A Hammer, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Wimoweh.

Gilbert, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, was born in New York on September 7 1926. Gilbert was singing on the radio by age 12. After performing in various choral and vocal groups, Ronnie joined forces with Seeger. She said of the Weavers: “Our major concern was getting folk music into the mainstream. That’s why we kept recording, that was our goal. That was why Pete and the rest of us put up with all the discomforts that life brought, because if it kept the recordings up, it meant that music was getting into the mainstream.”

The band’s left-wing activities were targeted by anti-Communists during the McCarthy era. They were blacklisted, unable to record, appear on television or radio and perform in many concert venues, and eventually disbanded. Gilbert once said that Seeger had had the most trouble with the band’s success. “Commercial success was the hardest on Pete Seeger,” she said. “That wasn’t the way he saw his life and didn’t want it to be, at the time.”

Commercial success was hard on Pete Seeger, said Ronnie Gilbert

Gilbert went on to pursue a solo career as a singer and a stage actor. In the Seventies, Gilbert earned an MA in clinical psychology and worked as a therapist for a few years.

In the Eighties, Gilbert also recorded and performed with the folk singer and activist Holly Near. The two of them toured in 1984 with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in a group they called HARP, melding the first letters of the performers’ names.

Gilbert’s memoir, Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song, which is the same title of a one-woman show she performed for years, will be published this autumn.

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She died of natural causes on June 6 2015 at a retirement community in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Mill Valley. She is survived by her daughter, Lisa, and Donna Korones, her partner of 30 years.

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