Folk legend Ronnie Gilbert died Saturday at the age of 88. Here is a reprint of an interview I did with her in 1984 for The Feminist Connection newspaper in Madison, WI.
RONNIE GILBERT: Carrying A Banner Once More
(reprinted from The Feminist Connection, Vol. 5, No. 1 – Sept. 1984)
Ronnie Gilbert has been involved in music and politics since she was a young child. As a member of America’s most popular folk music group, The Weavers. Ronnie Gilbert suffered from the McCarthy era blacklist together with her colleagues Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman and Lee Hays. In 1980. the Weavers had a final reunion concert featured in the film “Wasn’t That A Time.’’ In this film, Ronnie talks and sings with Holly Near, a collaboration so popular that it led to a national concert tour. Today Ronnie Gilbert works to balance her interests and involve¬ment in theatre and music. On Sept. 22 she will perform in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theatre as part of a two-day conference sponsored by The Wisconsin Women’s Net¬work. Tickets are available at the Union Theatre or from the Network.
FC: Do you see the medium of theater or concert culture as a particularly useful tool in communicating political ideas?
RONNIE GILBERT: It’s more direct. When I choose a song, it’s usually one that has a lot of ideas or information narrowed down to one poetic statement—or a series of poetic statements, where the images are very sharp. Add to that poetic notion a good tune that it rides on, that it sails on, and it’s like an arrow. It goes to your heart. That’s really what it’s all about. It comes from my heart; I wouldn’t be bothering about a political message if it didn’t come from some place very alive and full of electric charge for me. The very best way to get that across to an audience is through that very poetic musical idea. How to present material like that in a way that goes from the heart to the heart is the task of the artist.
FC: In many ways you’re matriarch of women’s music today. You provide continuity to the political movements of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s that the younger artists don’t have. In what ways do you think that you ’re carrying on that tradition? How can this continuity serve to help younger women musicians in developing and continuing their struggle?
RG: One of the reasons that I kind of got burned out on singing and then political work was that the forms of the material I was acquainted with got washed out. (Maybe ‘burned out’ isn’t exactly the right word because actually I wasn’t all that politically active in the ’60s. I was raising my family and trying to work again.) It’s like you have this very bright banner and you wash it and wash it many, many times, and it’s very beautiful. But then after a while it’s still a beautiful design and there’s still wonderful things on it, but it’s gotten sun-faded and wash-faded. As much as you treasured it and loved it, somehow or other it just gets a little blah.
FC: And you think that happened to the political music form?
RG: I felt that it did; I wasn’t very interested in it all that time in the early ’60s when political music was popular and fashionable. It got for me emotionally a little bit washed out. Maybe because I wasn’t personally connected with the movement … Then along comes this generation of younger people who had been connected with their movements in their own way and whose songs are full and different. Look at Holly Near’s music. Holly Near is generally classed incorrectly as a folk singer. But she’s nothing of the sort: her music comes from all different places but it’s very strongly based in that broad thing called popular music, not so much in folk music. Listening to that music and to the fine musicianship of the people who were developing their own stuff along the way revitalized my own interests in it, sort of lent a new type of dye to those banners. I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity I’ve been given’ to have these treasured things brightened up, sparkled up. I want to show people those old banners. I want to show that there were good designs and wonderful things that happened then, that they are connected. It’s like the miracle of discovering you have a family and all this time you thought you were an orphan. It’s something that younger people and in particular younger women are discovering by my participation, and by people like Faith Petric, women older than I am and who have even more songs and good old battles to talk about. And people like Utah Philips. I think this is a good thing to be doing. I feel it’s like an upward spiral. 1 feel very revitalized by being in the company of wonderful, vital, active women who know how to do things in ways 1 didn’t—that my generation of people was only groping toward—and know that they have roots. If I can be part of that, that’s fine. But there are a lot of new battles to fight too. I was just thinking how few people there are in the entertainment world who speak out for older women. I mean, who speaks for people of my generation and older? Well, I’d better do it!
FC: You first encountered Holly Near s music through your daughter. I’m wondering how your mother, a woman in the labor movement in the 1920s, might look at your work today? And does this reflect a change in the roles that political women have gone through in the last half century in this country?
RG: It’s a two-sided question. On the one hand, music served as very strong nourishment for the unionists of her time, and for the political people of her time. There always were labor songs; there were always sweatshop songs. I do think, though, that they were taken for granted, just as one needs air, food and clothing to grow and survive. My mother is still alive. My mother has seen Holly and me work together, she’s heard these songs, she’s met the people at Redwood Records. She is not only impressed, she is in some way rejuvenated by the sight of these women working together and what they’ve accomplished. As she comes to know more and more about the women who are the network behind all of this, I think it’s given her a wonderful sort of late lesson—not exactly a ‘lesson,’ but opening a chapter for her that at 80 I don’t think she expected to see. She is very much aware of what an extraordinary thing it is. I know that she sees connections between the time when she was young and they spoke about the ‘woman question’ in her political meetings. What she is seeing is the fulfillment of the promise and the question of the time. The worst thing she could imagine is that anything should prevent us from going on and singing and carrying on with more audiences. The wonderful thing for us, you see, is that: we see the job taken—not from our hands, because we’re still involved with it—but taken up to a level that we couldn’t have dreamed about. Look at the businesses and concerts that are being done now with women producing! This just didn’t exist when The Weavers were performing. There is a network of women all over this country and elsewhere who are incredibly competent production managers, concert promoters and record promoters. We used to depend on Decca and Columbia and so forth. Nowadays there is a huge network of people who carry alternative music to the people. This is all because of the women of this generation who have taken it out of the theoretical and put it to work.
FC: How is your role in performing with Holly Near different from your role in The Weavers, where you were one woman with three men. Do you see this change as a reflection of changes in yourself over the years?
RG: … (I remember) this big reunion goodbye concert at Lincoln Center in New York. There is a funny picture of Ronnie and the boys, me trying to look as much like them as I could, with my little black suit and my white blouse, trying not to stick out as the only woman in the group. Either I was going to be what they used to call in the reviews the ‘femme’ of the group, or the ‘pal,’ the one who just sort of fit in there somehow. It feels really good to be with a group of women, to be here working with women discovering what it is to be a woman today among women. I am not a separatist, I don’t feel for myself that is a political step 1 need to make, but 1 have been, in a very short time, so encouraged and enlarged by this association with women! It is a change in my consciousness in very practical and real ways. I feel it to be an extraordinary gift. I hope to be able to bring some of that to audiences. I can speak from those two different places. It isn’t to trivialize or minimize in any way the extraordinary association with The Weavers. But one thing that was suppressed in it, that I myself suppressed, was the whole aspect of my womanliness in that group. I’m encouraged to see songs coming from men with feminist consciousness, some of them wonderful songs. I would like to bring those songs to mixed audiences. I feel very, very lucky to have had both those experiences—it seems like almost too much in one lifetime!