This article is about the folk singer. For the bassist, see Blues Magoos.

Ruth Alice "Ronnie" Gilbert (September 7, 1926 – June 6, 2015)[1] was an American folk singer, songwriter, actress and political activist. She was one of the original members of the music quartet the Weavers, as a contralto with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman.

Early life

Gilbert was born in Brooklyn, New York City[1] and considered herself a native New Yorker her whole life.[2] Her mother, Sarah, was a dressmaker and trade unionist, and her father, Charles Gilbert, was a factory worker.[2][3]

Gilbert came to Washington, D.C., during World War II. She encountered Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie and other folk singers. She went to Anacostia High School. She was almost expelled because of her resistance to participating in a minstrel show. She performed in the early 1940s with the Priority Ramblers before founding the Weavers with Pete Seeger.[4]


Gilbert's singing was characterized as "a crystalline, bold contralto."[1]

Her voice is heard, blending with and rising over the others, in Weavers tracks such as “This Land Is Your Land”, “If I Had a Hammer”, “On Top of Old Smoky”, “Goodnight, Irene”, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”, and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”.[4]

The Weavers were an influential folk-singing group that was blacklisted in the early 1950s, during a period of widespread anti-communist feeling, because of the group's left-wing sympathies. Following the Weavers' dissolution in 1953 due to the blacklist,[5] She continued her activism on a personal level, traveling to Cuba in 1961 on a trip that brought her back to the United States on the same day that country banned travel to Cuba. She also participated in the Parisian protests of 1968 after traveling to that country to work with British theatrical director Peter Brook.[6] In the 1970s, Gilbert earned an MA in clinical psychology and worked as a therapist for a few years.[4]

Various well-known younger singers have honored Gilbert for the example she set for them, and the influence she had on their careers, particularly Holly Near. Near and Gilbert joined Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger for the 1984 quartet album HARP (an acronym for "Holly, Arlo, Ronnie, and Pete").[1] During that period Gilbert wrote and appeared in a one-woman show about Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, the Irish-American activist and labor organizer, and in a second work based on author Studs Terkel's book, Coming of Age.[6][7] In 1992, she accompanied the Vancouver Men's Chorus on the song Music in My Mother's House from their album Signature.[citation needed]

In 1991, Gilbert recorded "Lincoln and Liberty" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" for the compilation album, Songs of the Civil War.[citation needed]

Songs are dangerous, songs are subversive and can change your life.
— Ronnie Gilbert, on the effects of hearing Paul Robeson sing when she was 10[8]

She continued to tour and appear in plays, folk festivals, and music festivals well into her 80s. She continued her protest work, participating in groups such as Women in Black to protest "Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories" in addition to United States policies in the middle-east.[8][9] In 2006, the Weavers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Gilbert and Hellerman accepted the award. Pete Seeger was unable to attend the ceremony, and Hays had died in 1981. Seeger died in 2014.[citation needed]

Personal life

Gilbert was married to Martin Weg from 1950 until 1959, and the couple have one daughter, Lisa (born 1952).[6] Their marriage ended in divorce.[1] In 2004, Gilbert married her partner of almost two decades and her manager, Donna Korones, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom temporarily legalized gay marriage in San Francisco.[10] Gilbert moved to Caspar, California, in 2006.[11]

Gilbert died on June 6, 2015 in Mill Valley, California, from natural causes, age 88.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Weber, Bruce (June 6, 2015). "Ronnie Gilbert, Folk Singer for the Weavers, Dies at 88". Obituary (New York Times). Retrieved 7 June 2015. 
  2. ^ a b ronnie gilbert "Ronnie Gilbert: A RADICAL LIFE WITH SONGS"
  3. ^ Ronnie Gilbert profile at
  4. ^ a b c Emily Langer (June 8, 2015). "Ronnie Gilbert, founding member of the Weavers, dies at 88". The Washington Post. 
  5. ^ Leslie Kandell. "Together Again: Two Women With a Multiplicity of Messages" (Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert concert tour), The New York Times, September 22, 1996.
  6. ^ a b c Amy Bank and Melissa Howden. Holly/Ronnie Timeline – a timeline showing personal activism in relation to historical events, 1983, 1986 Redwood Records.
  7. ^ Barbara McKenna. "Folksinger-activist presents public lecture at UCSC",, November 15, 1999
  8. ^ a b Michael Hochanadel. "Ronnie Gilbert tells and sings her story — and our history",, May 7, 2005.
  9. ^ Ronnie Gilbert. "A New Weaver's Song" (on the origins of her participation in Women in Black), The Progressive, February 2006.
  10. ^ Rachel Gordon. "State lawmaker joins S.F.'s gay wedding waltz: Republicans demand Newsom halt same-sex marriages and focus on city's 'critical issues,'", San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2004, pg. A11.
  11. ^ Levene, Bruce (Summer 2009), An Interview With Ronnie Gilbert (PDF), Mendocino Art Center .