The arts have always been part of how humans protest. Walk through any major display of classics with an art historian some time; you’d be amazed at what’s in there. And some artists were mostly known in their time for their protest work. And it’s not just the visual arts. I’ve no doubt that any number of protest songs have been lost in the sands of time, from back when that sort of thing was solely limited to the oral tradition, but in the twentieth century, the protest song was actually rendered less ephemeral by things like recordings. Famously, performers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary performed at the March on Washington. (And, yes, Mahalia Jackson, but largely the performers were really, really white.) And before all of them, there were the Weavers, including Ronnie Gilbert.
Gilbert got her protest credentials young, having almost gotten expelled from high school for protesting the school’s staging of a minstrel show. Her mother was a trade unionist. When they moved to Washington, DC, she met people such as Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie. And at some point, I am unable to find out how, she met Pete Seeger, and they founded The Weavers along with Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. Folk music would become synonymous with the ’60s, but it got its impetus from the Weavers.
Who disbanded in 1953 because they were caught up in the Blacklist. Because the power of folk music was just that much to be feared, that they needed to keep the Weavers from doing their political stuff and then still took away their recording contract completely. I mean, I could write a lot about how folk music isn’t just “Barbara Allen” and “500 Miles,” and even “Shoals of Herring” features the line “There was little kindness and the kicks were many,” but “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” isn’t exactly radical. But it was still too radical for the ’50s, I guess.
And after they disbanded, Ronnie Gilbert continued her activism for a while. In Cuba, in Paris—there were places she went and things she did. And then she went back to school and became a therapist and it was actually possible, for a while, to think she was dead. Which we know, because Holly Near did, in 1974. Near dedicated an album to her only to discover that, nope, Gilbert was still alive. (Even in 1974, this is the sort of thing you could have looked up. Surely she was in the Berkeley phone book, right?) So Gilbert and Near did some work together for a while. And, of course, Gilbert continued to protest.
And, in a beautiful and heartwarming moment, she was able to marry her partner of over twenty years in 2004, when San Francisco briefly legalized same-sex marriage. Alas, she died literally twenty days before the release of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, but still. She and Donna Korones were able to live together as married for over a decade, and that’s great. Having that connection together feels like a great conclusion to a life spent trying to improve society.