Ronnie Gilbert, formerly of the Weavers, now grand lady of American folk music, paused to look up from the sidewalk, just a block from the South African Embassy, and comment on her impending participation in the already forming picket line. Dressed in an unassuming winter parka, her midlength white hair brushed back from a confident, unlined face, Gilbert asked for a blue and yellow sandwich board, which read "Artists Against Apartheid," then smiled serenely at the questioner.

"Somebody has got it in their minds that paintings are dangerous," she said. "I'm just walking like everybody else."

Gilbert, who is in town playing the dual roles of narrator and Mrs. Fezziwig in Ford's Theatre's "A Christmas Carol," came to the embassy last week -- along with other Washington musicians, singers, writers and painters -- in response to a call put out by Artists Against Apartheid. The relatively new group is described by visual artist Leslie Kuter, one of its founders, as more of a vehicle for organizing antiapartheid protest than as a group particularly focused on the plight of black South African artists.

The creations of South African artists, pointed out Round House Theatre musical director Roy Barber, "are how we know about South Africa."