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Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song

This is a wonderful memoir of the woman best known as a member of the folk group The Weavers, who died a few months ago at the age of 88.

I admit I knew her only as a singer, someone who had originally performed with the Weavers starting in the 1940s. She was one of the founding members (along with Pete Seeger) and went on to perform with Holly Near (who wrote the forward) in the 80s and 90s. Frankly, I was not aware of the amazing life she led, with other careers including actor, playwright, and therapist. In this book, Ronnie shares her memories, bringing the incredible social issues she was involved in alive using song lyrics and personal stories. Along the way, she reveals the various things that defined her life: folk music in the 50s and 60s (featuring Pete Seeger), the Cold War blacklist that cost so many artists their ability to work, primal therapy, the women’s movement and lift-wing political activism.

The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine and Poland, Ronnie came by her activism naturally: at around age 10, her mother (a garment worker, union activist and member of the Communist Party) took her to a union rally where Ronnie hear Paul Robeson sing (she later called this event “transformative”).

The Weavers broke up in the mid-60s, and Ronnie focused energy on the theater, followed by becoming involved as a therapist after receiving her degree in Psychology in the 1970s. In 1980, a reunion performance of the Weavers took place, and later Ronnie and Holly Near traveled and performed with Pet Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.

One of the primary themes is the importance of women and the link to music. As Ronnie says: “That’s what the women’s movement was about for me: poetry, music, and passion. The message? The best message, the only message: Love yourself, your friend, and your lover. If possible, love your enemy. If not, walk away and love something else.”

Enjoyable solely as a memoir, this is also an amazing history of the women’s movement and women’s music that blossomed in the late 1970s and 80s. Ronnie’s passion is clear as she remembers people, events, and songs, and uses all to tell the story of her trailblazing life. I know several people who would love reading this: one is a lifelong activist, with no musical talent (or interest, actually); one is a musician who will devour the stories of singers and songwriters and the challenges they faced, often due to their activism; and a couple are women with a deep interest in women’s history. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing me with this copy in advance, in order to write a review. I can’t wait to see the final product, which will include tons of photos!