Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Legends of song perform in valley

Express Staff Writer

Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert

When a slice of American musical history falls into your lap, don't turn away. A chance of a lifetime is beckoning. Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert have contributed to the folk music world for close to 60 years, combined. They are two of the greatest politically motivated female folk singers ever to grace a stage.

The Sun Valley Center for the Arts presents two programs with the acclaimed singers and social activists.

"I dedicated my second record to Ronnie," Near said. "She found me and we became friends and then started singing together (in 1983). She is the age I am now when I met her. Ronnie and I don't separate the music, politics, personal with very clear lines. We tell personal stories about large global issues and small moments and weave it all in and around music."

Since then they have recorded and preformed together, often with others of their kind including Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.

New York native Gilbert was a member of the seminal folk band The Weavers, which formed in 1947 with Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Seeger. The group had a big hit in 1949 with Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene."

The Weavers, featuring Gilbert's soaring contralto, sang traditional folk songs along with blues, gospel, folk, children's songs, labor songs and ballads. At the height of their popularity they sold millions of records.

Despite trying to avoid being attached to many leftwing events, they were placed under FBI surveillance and blacklisted by the U.S. government during the McCarthy era. Though there were several reunions over the years, famously one in 1955 at Carnegie Hall, Gilbert has mostly had a solo career ever since. She also became a clinical psychologist and worked as a therapist before being lured back to the stage by Near.

Meanwhile, the younger Near came of age in the 1960s. She was a so-called "red-diaper baby of leftist parents," in Potter Valley, Calif. At age 7, she attracted the attention of a voice teacher and at 10 she auditioned for Columbia Records.

Her influences were the voices of Lena Horne, Mary Martin and Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Marion Anderson to Mercedes Sosa and Peggy Lee.

During the 1969-70 theater season, she appeared in "Hair" on Broadway. Seven albums of original, mostly politically oriented songs followed. Equally devoted to political activity, Near frequently performed benefits for political causes including against the Vietnam War and for equal rights, and traveled to such war-torn countries as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Recently returned from a trip with Gloria Steinem to Botswana, Near's concerns remain topical.

"No matter what I do, I try to talk about ending the war. It breaks my heart that our young people are over in Iraq—their lives endangered," she said. "I love that there are soldiers coming back and joining the peace movement, parents who are speaking out against the war, young people, who could sure use the money, are refusing bonuses to sign up. That's all part of the growing peace movement of which I am a part."

Near is particularly moved, as she said, by anything singer, composer, scholar, and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon is up to. A specialist in African-American oral history, performance and protest traditions, Reagon was an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"I heard (her) say that the music breaks the silence. And in many ways music helps us to know we have a right to be alive, even when the powers that be are doing everything they can to tell you that you don't matter, that you don't count, that you are disposable. Music also offers us memory, a calendar of our lives. I was listening to a Joe and Eddie recording the other night. They were singing, 'There's A Meeting Here Tonight' and it took me right back to my childhood living room, to my child mind investigating the meaning of that song. I was learning about spirit and black culture and organizing and hope and the power of sound and harmony ... all right there, wrapped up in that song."

For those who grew up listening to both these remarkable women, their music is part of a calendar of our lives.

Near & Gilbert

Friday, Nov. 4, "This Land is Your Land" Across Time and Culture Lecture and Sing-a-Long. Free. 7 p.m. Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Ketchum.

Saturday, Nov. 5, An Evening with Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert, with pianist John Bucchino. Liberty Theatre, Hailey. Tickets: $15 adults and $5 for children 12 and under. Tickets are available at Sun Valley Center for the Arts, in Ketchum, or at Big Bad Bill's in Hailey.

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