MILL VALLEY, Calif. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Singer and Brooklyn native Ronnie Gilbert, who made musical history with the Weavers beginning in the late 1940s, has died.
Gilbert died of natural causes Saturday at a retirement community in Mill Valley, California, according to her longtime partner, Donna Korones. She was 88.
Ruth Alice Gilbert was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 7, 1926. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – her mother, Sarah, was a dressmaker and trade unionist from Poland, while her father, Charles, was a hat maker and factory worker from the Ukraine.
In 1948, she joined Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman to form the Weavers – a group that helped set the stage for a national revival of folk music. The group churned out hit recordings of “Goodnight Irene,” “Tzena, Tzena,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” ”If I Had A Hammer,” ”Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Wimoweh.”
The Weavers became hugely popular before being targeted by anti-Communists and blacklisted during the Red Scare. They were forced to take a hiatus from their recording career due to the blacklist, until their return for their iconic Christmas Eve 1955 concert at Carnegie Hall.
Seeger left the Weavers in 1958, but Gilbert, Hays, and Hellerman went on with other singers — Erik Darling, Frank Hamilton, and finally Bernie Krause — until the group disbanded again in 1964.
Afterward, Gilbert continued to work as a political activist and stage actor, and also worked as a therapist after receiving a master’s degree in clinical psychology in the 1970s.
As an actor, Gilbert worked with director Joseph Chaikin at the Open Theater cooperative, and with experimental stage director Peter Brook in Paris, according to a New York Times report.
Gilbert appeared in the Broadway production of “The Man in the Glass Booth,” and performed in a one-woman show about Mary Harris Jones – the labor organizer who became known Mother Jones, the newspaper reported.
A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 — again at Carnegie Hall — was filmed as a documentary titled “Wasn’t That a Time.” Hays died in 1981, Seeger in 2014.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Gilbert recorded three duet albums with folksinger Holly Near. Gilbert and Near were also joined by Seeger and Arlo Guthrie for a 1984 quartet album titled “HARP” — for “Holly, Arlo, Ronnie, Pete.”
Guthrie eulogized Gilbert in a Facebook post.
“She was one fourth of The Weavers, which in and of itself would have qualified her with a badge of courage, but she also continued throughout her life to stand as a beacon for anyone hoping to make the world a little more equal and normal for those too often told to stay on the fringes of society,” he wrote. “I adored her.”
Near also issued a post on Sunday mourning Gilbert’s passing.
“It was such fun to sing with her over the last 30+ years…. I visited with her a few times in the last couple weeks. She was peaceful and in good spirits,” Near wrote. “May we all come to the end of our lives with such grace.”
Gilbert’s memoir, “Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song,” will be published posthumously this fall, according to Rolling Stone Magazine.
Gilbert married and divorced Martin Weg and had a daughter, Lisa.
In 2004, Gilbert married her longtime partner Korones when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom temporarily legalized same-sex marriage, according to published reports. Gilbert and Korones had been together for 30 years when Gilbert passed away.
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