Holly and Ronnie

Ronnie Gilbert was born in 1926 in New York City. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and they worked as garment workers. As a rank and file unionist and a Communist, her mother Sara helped to build the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, fighting both unscrupulous employers and labor racketeers, and pioneered Civil Rights. It was in such an intensely idealistic radical atmosphere that Ronnie was raised. She says, "Oftentimes I think of politics and my mother as one in the same, and from time to time it has been necessary to back off from both. It has always been a great relief to come back to both."

During the Depression the family had to move a lot, in search of jobs and cheaper rent, yet money was somehow scraped up for dance and music lessons and even for a little time out of the city in summer children's camps for both Ronnie and her sister. In those years Hitler came to power in Germany, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was formed, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigades left the US to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Ronnie played drum in May Day parades and collected coins on the street for Spanish Refugee children. Then World War II began. As war raged overseas, Ronnie left high school and her part-time job and took a government office job in Washington, DC. There she sang with her first folk-song group, The Priority Ramblers.

In Europe, the Nazis were implementing the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" that killed six million Jews. In the U.S., the government imprisoned 112,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps, and then in 1945, dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was over. People had created the potential to destroy the earth.

Ronnie met Fred Hellerman in 1944 and began singing with him when they were counselors at WO-CHI-CA (WOrkers CHIldrens CAmp). Two years later they met Pete Seeger and Lee Hays and formed a folk-song chorus and then the No-Name Quartet, which later became The Weavers.

 


Art & Activism: History

"It is impossible to do justice to 38 years of history and two people's lives in four short pages, but because we feel it's important not to lose our history—even though our society does all it can to promote collective amnesia—we wanted to attempt to put Holly's and Ronnie's lives and work into historical context and to show some of the struggles that have created the need for a radical culture. This chronology is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive. We know there are many important events left out that should have been included. We encourage you to fill in the blanks, to fill in your own life, and to use this as a reference if you find it useful." [from the informal history of Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert.]

We haven't updated this timeline to the present as yet. Maybe Holly and Ronnie will find the time ... sometime!

Year Events Ronnie Holly
1948 Progressive Party campaign to elect Henry Wallace President. U.N. Conven tion on Genocide and Declaration of Human Rights. India declares independence, Gandhi assassinated. State of Israel formed. Goes to Progressive Party convention to sing. No-Name Quartet builds repertoire of folksongs and songs about social issues with a folk base. Meets future husband. Parents work for Progressive Party in Potter Valley, a small farming town in Northern California.
1949 People's Republic of China declared. Paul Robeson, defying racist mob riots, sings to 15,000 in Peekskill, NY Smith Act prosecutions begin against people who allegedly "advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence." Caught in Peekskill riots with other members of future Weavers. Weavers come together formally, record Lee's "Ballad of Peekskill." Holly born a "ban-the-bomb" baby. Paul Robeson records help rock baby to sleep.
1950 1950 Korean War breaks out. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigating Hollywood for "subversives". Two members of "Hollywood 10" sent to prison. Soviet Union tests 1st A-bomb, destroying US monopoly and fueling the "spy scare." Ethel and Julius Rosenberg arrested. Weavers begin 6-month run at Village Vanguard in NYC. Do fundraisers for various good causes. They become popular NY attraction. Sign Decca record contract, record Tzena, Tzena and Goodnight Irene. Irene becomes top-selling record of the year. Gets married on day the papers announce the break-out of Korean War. Sweats out possibility of husband being drafted. California honeymoon.
1951 "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been...?" Congressional hearings investigate alleged Communists and Fellow travelers. Weavers record, play hotels, night-clubs, theatres. Are offered national TV show.
1952 Congressional hearings and investigations continue. FBI informer accuses Weavers of being Communists. TV show and other major contracts cancelled. Decca stops recording Weavers. DJs stop playing. Weavers take a sabbatical. Ronnie leaves tor California with husband to settle there. Daughter Lisa born. "We are suburbanites; I am not good at being the 'little woman', although I read about it a lot." As a 3-year-old, does not yet understand effects of McCarthyism. Two years later, family friend Bill Hinton recent ly returned from China, comes to visit but must leave suddenly when subpoenaed. (His China notes had been illegally siezed; they were later returned and became basis for his book, Fanshen.)
1953 Korean War ends. Ethel & Julius Rosenberg executed. 13 Communist Party members convicted under the Smith Act. Harry Belafonte and Kingston Trio come onto the music scene. Studies music and sings in local a capella choir. Is a mommy. Vigils for the Rosenbergs. (Is told that the Rosenbergs asked to hear Goodnight Irene before going to electric chair.) A pall hangs over farmhouse as family waits for news about the Rosenbergs—Holly about the same age as Rosenberg children, doesn't know that she'll grow up to be their friend.
1955 Rosa Parks sits in the front of a Montgomery bus—begins bus boycott. AFL- CIO merge. Polio vaccine developed. Supreme Court rules to desegregate public schools. Weavers reunite for Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall—hundreds turned away. Recorded by Harold Leventhal. Having made friends with Native American children at grammar school, begins to witness racism for first time.
1956 Eisenhower reelected President. Bus boycott called off after successfully forcing desegregation of Montgomery buses. Another Carnegie concert, also recorded, released on Vanguard label. Begins performing at many weddings in the county.
1957 Founding of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), head- ed by Martin Luther King Jr. Ronnie does solo recording: The Legend of Bessie Smith. Weavers resume limited work. Sings at show sponsored by Veterans of Foreign Wars. Begins singing lessons. First sees Weavers in concert.
1958 Native Americans battle with KKK and drive them out of Maxton, NC. Erik Darling replaces Pete Seeger in the Weavers for next 3 years. Parents involved in anti-corporal punishment effort after Holly's classmate is hit by teacher.
1959 Victory of Cuban Revolution. Blacks admitted to Little Rock, Ark. high school with US troops present. Marriage ends. Moves back east with Lisa. Weavers on Israeli and British tour. Solo recording: Come and Go With Me for Vanguard.
1961 US gov't bans travel to Cuba. J.F Kennedy inaugurated as President. Freedom Riders leave Washington, DC for the South by bus. New Year's visit to Cuba, returning on day US travel ban announced. While at music camp in Colorado is exposed to a variety of other cultures for first time
1963 Limited Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty signed by US, USSR, England. March for Jobs & Freedom in Washington, DC. JFK assassinated.4 children killed in Alabama church bombing. Weavers disband. Meets Joseph Chaikin, joins Open Theatre. Starts solo singing with small backup band. Starts high school in Ukiah. Sings in Freedom Singers, folk group modeled after the Weavers.
1964 Free Speech Movement begins at the University of CA, Berkeley. Civil Rights Act outlawing public segregation, passed. Fannie Lou Hamer leads Freedom Democratic Party delegation to national party convention in Atlantic City. Joins Women's Strike for Peace and early anti-Vietnam war protests. Records Alone With Ronnie Gilbert. Near family gets first television bringing news of the Civil Rights movement. Singing teacher sets up Columbia Records audition in L.A. for Holly; afterwards decides she doesn't want to be a "child star," wants to grow up "normal".
1965 Malcolm X assassinated. Watts riots. Escalation of war in Vietnam begun by LBJ. 5-year Delano grape strike begun by United Farm Workers. Martin Luther King leads march to Selma, AL. Voting Rights Act passed. Everything goes "go-go" --no singing work. Performs in Open Theatre's Viet-Rock. Refuses invitation to run for Miss Teenage American because she doesn't want to "get that skinny." Begins working with Jeff Langley, high school friend, a musical collaboration which continues for 11 years.
1966 National Organization for Women formed. SNCC issues statement against Vietnam War. Performs in America Hurrah! an off- Broadway hit in New York and Lon- don. Show is censored in London. Re-joins NY cast. Writes weekly column in Ukiah Dai- ly paper: "Ukiah Hi News Notes". In addition to reporting on school activities, editorializes against Vietnam War and draft of high school boys.
1967 Massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War, including 200,000 in NYC, 100,000 in Washington, DC (where 700 were arrested) Holly and Jeff perform in My Fair Lady. Graduates high school.
1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated. R.F Kennedy assassinated. Tet offensive begins in Vietnam. My Lai massacre. Student and general strikes in France. LBJ declines to run again. Nixon elected. Poor People's March. Goes to Paris to work with Peter Brook. Marches in Paris demonstra- tions, gets tear-gassed. She and the other actors work while the rest of France strikes. Begins college at UCLA in Theatre Arts program. First year of city life is confusing–comes into contact with drug and "free love" lifestyles. Attends first peace vigil, joins Another Mother for Peace.
1969 Stonewall uprising ignites modern gay liberation movement.78 Native Americans occupy Alcatraz Island. Woodstock music festival. Neil Armstrong 1st person to walk on moon. Nationwide Moratorium against Vietnam War—2 million demonstrate. Attacks on Black Panthers by police and FBI. On Broadway in Man in the Glass Booth directed by Harold Pinter. Show closes on tour. No acting work, teaches at New School for Social Research. Works for magazine, goes back to 9-5ing. Lands acting jobs in movies and TV shows such as Mod Squad and The Partridge Family. Tries to balance the contradictions of Hollywood fantasyland and real life in churning political community of Venice, CA.
1970 US invades Cambodia. Students mur- dered at Kent & Jackson State Universities. Socialist candidate Salvador Allende elected President of Chile 1,400 draft cards burned in Puerto Rican Vietnam War protest. Chicano moratorium against Vietnam War in L.A. Teaching at New School when Kent State students killed—classes cancelled. Kent State a turning point, the war had come home. Begins wandering around California with Lisa searching for a meaningful place to settle. Lisa declares her independence, goes out on her own. In Broadway cast of Hair. Cast does silent vigil in response to Kent State murders. Returns to California to do a film just for the money. A confusing time. Holly tells a friend "Women's lib is OK for women who need it." Lives long enough to laugh at that remark.
1971 Uprising at Attica Prison George Jackson murdered. Angela Davis trial Nat'l Women's Political Caucus formed. Women's March on the Pentagon 500,000 demonstrate against Vietnam War in Wash, DC Moves to Berkeley, gets trained as a therapist. Finds integration of art and politics in the Free The Army tour with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in the Pacific, supporting the Gl Movement (GIs resisting the war from inside).
1972 Ms. Magazine begins publishing Shirley Chisolm runs for president Congress passes ERA—goes to states for ratification. Full-time therapist, helps set up therapy center. Begins graduate school in psychology. Works as receptionist for Pentagon Papers trial. Starts Indochina Peace Campaign across US with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. Meets socialist feminists. Writes her 1st feminist song, It's More Important To Me, as well as other songs about Vietnam and America.
1973 Supreme Court legalizes abortion Watergate scandal exposed. Oglala Sioux occupy Wounded Knee. Allende assassinated and gov't overthrown in US-backed military coup. Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs at "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match.1st Nat'l Lesbian Feminist Conf. held in L.A Can't get record contract to her liking—songs too political and voice not "submissive enough" Starts Redwood Records, records Hang In There. Writes and performs It Could Have Been Me for Kent State Memorial. Begins to learn about Latin America after hearing of Chilean coup.
1974 Nixon resigns (and is pardoned by Fordl. Patty Hearst kidnapped. Karen Silkwood killed. Gets M.A. in psychology. Hears Holly's singing for 1st time via A Live Album that Holly dedicated to her. Tours US with Jeff Langley, singing at union halls, churches, prisons, universities. Releases A Live Album, dedicated to Ronnie Gilbert. Goes to Vietnam with Jeff as guest of Vietnamese Musicians Union.
1975 US troops leave Vietnam. UN declares Int'l Women's Year and Int'l Women's Decade. Mozambique liberated. Emigrates to British Columbia, works in rural alternative high school, does therapy among draft resisters, back-to-the-landers, foster parents and teens. Starts women's consciousness-raising group. Becomes aware of growing feminist music network. Sings in Building Women show in L.A. with Lily Tomlin, Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Margie Adam, Miss Alice Stone's Ladies Society Orchestra. Does support work with United Farm Workers.
1976 Women in Iceland go on general strike to prove their importance to the economy. Woman enters Indy 500 race for 1st time. S. African army forced out of Angola. Starts "Theatre Energy" with other grassroots theatre enthusiasts to make plays about and for the community. 3 plays over the next 3 years, aided by grants and community support. Records You Can Know All I Am. Women on Wheels Tour of California. Sister Timothy signs songs at concerts, introducing sign language interpretation to West Coast feminist music audiences. Holly comes out publicly as a lesbian at 1st Michican Women's Music Festival.
1977 International Women's Year Women's Conference in Houston. Occupation of Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Theatre Energy's Voices of the Koo- tenays tours British Columbia. Is In- vited by Joseph Chaikin for 1st year of Winter Project. Sings at Houston Conf. Begins working with Susan Freundlich. On women's peace delegation to Hiroshima. Writes "Fight Back" for feminist anti-violence demonstration in L.A.
1978 Congress extends ERA deadline. Briggs Initiative against gay teachers is overwhelmingly defeated. Harvey Milk—first openly gay Supervisor in S.F--and Mayor George Moscone assassinated. People's Temple mass "suicide" in Guyana. Commutes between British Columbia, New York, California, doing theatre, therapy, building a cabin in BC. Teaches Parent Effectiveness Training. She and Lisa "weather a heavy delayed separation crisis" Realizes theatre is where she needs to be. Writes Singing for Our Lives for Harvey Milk memorial. Goes to Copenhagen for 1st Int'l Women's Music Festival. Releases Imagine My Surpnse!. Goes to Mexico with Bernice Reagon to perform at solidarity with Chile event, meets with Mrs. Allende.
1979 Near meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Blockade at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant Sandinistas victorious in Nicaragua 1st Nat'l March on Washington for Gay & Lesbian rights. Shah flees. Winter Project's Re-Arrangements in NY, play in Vancouver. Attends anti-nuke rally in S.F. after Three Mile Island accident. Is planning 26-city tour for a Nuclear Free Future when news of 3 Mile Island is announced. Sings at National Gay March. Redwood releases Sweet Honey in the Rock's B'lieve I'll Run On... a coalition effort.
1980 Wilmington 10, framed civil rights workers, freed. Reagan elected. 4 women religious workers murdered in El Salvador. 300 Native Americans begin cross-country "Longest Walk" to protect treaty rights. Winter Project's Tourists and Refugees in NY and Beckett's Happy Days in Vancouver. The Weavers reunite for final Carnegie Hall concert; Ronnie sings Holly's Something About the Women on the Today Show; works on reunion film, Wasn't That A Time! National touring. Redwood Records becomes a partnership with Jo-Lynne Worley and Joanie Shoemaker. Holly and Ronnie sing together for the first time as seen in the film Wasn't That A Time!
1981 UN declares Int'l Year of Disabled Persons. Disabled Freedom Rally and Caravan to Washington, DC. Air controllers strike broken by Pres. Reagan. Goes to Caracas with NY cast of Tourists and Refugees. Goes to London where Wasn't That A Time! is shown at film festival. Lee Hays dies. On National tour for Women's Studies. Fire in the Rain released. Speaks on art and politics at Nat'l Mobilization for Survival Conference.
1982 Massive disarmament demonstrations around the world, 1 million in NYC. Unemployment highest since WWII. ERA defeated-feminists continue the struggle. Israeli invasion of Lebanon, massacre at Palestinian refugee camps --Jewish and progressive communities in turmoil. Sings at 1st meeting of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament, Holly joins for benefit in New York City. June 12th disarmament demonstration in NYC. Several plays in NY. Sings with Holly at Vancouver Folk Festival, dedicated to Lee Hays. Sings at June 1 2th demonstration. Performs with "Near Sisters" for 1st time in 10 years, bringing theatre and dance back into Holly's work. 50-city tour: "Be Disarming-Challenge the Nuclear Mentality" sings to 200,000 at Artists for Disarmament rally in W. Germany. 6th album, Speed of Light.
1983 FMLN in El Salvador advances against gov't-Reagan seeks aid from unwilling Congress. CIA wages war on Nicaragua. Performs in Winter Project's Lies and Secrets. National tour and live award-winning album Lifeline with Holly. Travels to Mexico. Sings in Brussels for Int'l Women's Day. national tour and live album Lifeline with Ronnie. Forms Redwood Records Cultural and Educational Fund.
1984 US elections spur increased activism in attempts to defeat Reagan. Geraldine Ferraro becomes first woman vice-presidential candidate on major party slate. Jesse Jackson's bid for president advances coalition politics. The Sanctuary movement in the US gains momentum. The numbers of Central Americans fleeing violence in their homelands increases. The US Gov't indicts Sanctuary workers in Texas. Regan sends troops into Grenada. Tours nationally with Holly--"Defeat Reagan Election Year Tour". Performs first solo concert in 20 years. Performs in St. Louis Repertory's Medea and Tongues and Savage Love.

Sings with Holly at the Hudson Clearwater Revival, Winnepeg Folk Festival and Sisterfire. Tours with Holly, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, records live album, HARP, at close of tour.

Tours in Europe. National "Defeat Regan Tour" with Ronnie. Travels to Ecuador as member of the US Delegation to Third International Festival of New Song. Travels to Cuba and Nicaragua. 9th album Watchout. National Tour and live album Sing to Me The Dream with Inti Illimani. Tours with Arlo, Ronnie and Pete-live album HARP
1985 Over 15,000 women from every corner of the globe gather in Nairobi, lfenya to assess the status and progress of women. Bishop Desmond Tutu wins Nobel Peace Prize as pressure from the world community to end Apartheid es- calates. Records first solo album in 20 years The Spirit is Free. National solo tour. Performs with Holly at 10th Michigan Women's Music Festival. Ohio State Fair with Holly, Arlo and Pete. Vancouver Folk Festival, Redwood Festival, Sisterfire and the National Women's Music Festival. Named MS Magazine Woman of the Year. 10th Michigan Women's Music Festival with Ronnie. Performs for over 100,000 people at festival in Portugal. MC's and sings at first annual Redwood Records Festival. UC Berkeley Rally with Bishop Tutu. National solo tour.
1986 The people of Haiti and the Philippines overthrow dictators Duvalier and Marcos. The Navajo and Hopi fight for traditional tribal lands against US relocation laws. US Congress repels pitch for 100 million dollars of aid to Contras fighting the people of Nicaragua. Reagan proclaims himself a Contra and takes his appeal to the Senate. Lincoln Brigade 50th Anniversary Concert in NYC. Tours with Si Kahn for Jewish Fund for Justice. Records second album with Holly Singing With You. Tours Denmark, does benefit concerts for the Greater London Council, Margaret Randall Defense Fund and a Sanctuary Benefit with Jackson Browne and Mandy Patinkin in Washington, DC. Singing With You album with Ronnie. Returns to Nicaragua on a "working vacation."