If you stay alert and get lucky, you might have a chance to witness the Hoosier Raging Grannies in action.
The Raging Grannies got their start in Victoria, B.C., Canada, 23 years ago, when a group of elderly women peace activists thought they weren’t getting their message across and came up with the idea of group of women donning costumes that are stereotypes of elderly women’s outfits and singing short, snappy, satirical lyrics to well-known songs. The best Granny songs base the words on those of the original tune, like “The Old Gray Granny,” about health care and sung to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare:”
The old, gray granny ain’t what she used to be,
Had a hysterectomy, needs a colonoscopy,
But she can’t afford to pay for her care and so
I guess we’ll have to shoot her now….
The Grannies are an activist group first and a singing group second: the songs are tools to convey their political messages.
The first Grannies group organized in 1987. Since then the groups have mushroomed in the English-speaking world.
Bloomington activist Cyndi Roberts-Hall initiated a Grannies group, the Hoosier Raging Grannies, several years ago and remains the main organizer. The Bloomington Alternative caught up with Roberts-Hall when she wasn’t participating in a Granny practice session (on alternate Tuesdays at 11 a.m. at Rachael’s Café) to ask her about the local Grannies.
LG: How did you become interested in starting a Raging Grannies group in Bloomington?
"We’ve come to this conclusion that a short message is the best received, especially if we’re singing out in the street somewhere where we’re trying to catch passers-by." - Cynthia Roberts-Hall
CR-H: I came back from the 2008 Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF) congress in Iowa inspired do so. I had my introduction to Grannies back at a WILPF congress in the late ‘90s, but I always dismissed it because I couldn’t sing, but they encouraged us at the congress to sing with them, so I tried it out, and I enjoyed it. We sang to introduce Amy Goodman -- she spoke there at the congress. And we also went to their farmers’ market and sang there, too. There were people from various Granny groups because this was a national congress, and I think Iowa had their own group.
LG: When did you organize the Hoosiser Grannies?
CR-H: It was around July 2008. I sent out messages to a few people who I thought might have some interest, like Glenda Breeden and Marti Crouch, but I also announced it at a WILPF meeting. It has been my experience that they’re closely allied, aligned, whatever. Glenda enjoys singing anyway and was looking for something new. She’s been one of the original group and one of the very few left of the original group.
LG: The Victoria Grannies are a really close-knit group, according to Off Our Rockers and into Trouble: The Raging Grannies, by two of the original Victoria Raging Grannies, Alison Acker and Betty Brightwell. They have a waiting list. And they work together all the time. They meet every week. The Bloomington group is a lot more casual; it’s a lot bigger, and people just come now and then. Do you think that works pretty well?
CR-H: As long as we have a dedicated core, I think it’s fine if some people show up sporadically. From the book I read that Victoria has some honorary Grannies who show up now and then. Generally, more activist people will join. We’ve kind of seen some of that because one time when we sang at the farmers’ market near the Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan (HCHP) table (we were just singing some of our general songs), I think we sang “The Old Gray Granny,” and Karen Green Stone, from HCHP, came and sang with us. She joined the list, but I don’t think she’s come back and sung except when she sang at the HCHP meeting a few weeks ago. That’s true of almost all our members. We have a primary focus, be it environmental or the death penalty or Cuba or what have you, and we tend to call people to those issues when such a situation presents itself.
LG: One thing that really struck me about the songs was that the Grannies’ trademark is short, snappy, satirical songs. We sometimes sing “straight” songs and also ask the audience to join in.
What do you think about singing straight songs?
CR-H: You mean like “Blowing in the Wind”?
LG: Yes, or one that a Granny wrote.
CR-H: We’ve come to this conclusion that a short message is the best received, especially if we’re singing out in the street somewhere where we’re trying to catch passers-by. We have a few simple things; that’s ideal. I’ve also noticed that the Victoria Grannies say they try to be provocative if they can, but sometimes a little lighter tune doesn’t hurt.
"It takes a certain kind of person, but I think we’re starting to get a few more people like that." - Cynthia Roberts-Hall
LG: The Grannies started as peace activists who were looking for a new way to get their message across, and they hit on the Raging Grannies idea. Do you see the Grannies in Bloomington as being as political or becoming as political as that?
CR-H: I think we could become that political. There’s some background to that. We’ve had people come and go not being fully aware that it is pretty much an activist group. And sometimes when they find out it is, they decide it isn’t really for them. People say, “I’m so happy you’re doing this, but I’m really not that outrageous.” It takes a certain kind of person, but I think we’re starting to get a few more people like that so I can see that happening.
LG: I’ve noticed that the Victoria Grannies just happen to show up unannounced, and they tend to be where they’re not wanted.
CR-H: Right. We’ve done a little of that. We marched once from the post office to the courthouse square, on Tax Day, I think. One time we sang a recruiting song and marched along the street, which we’re planning to do on our next activity, on Jan. 21. We did that once when we went to the timber sale at Yellowwood State Forest.
LG: We didn’t really disturb anything, though.
LG: What do you think the Hoosier Grannies are accomplishing?
CR-H: I think maybe we’re reaching people that might not otherwise hear what we’re saying. People tend to have their own type of media that they listen to, and some of those people might dismiss us and even give us the finger, but it’s just part of getting the message out. It kind of gives you a chance to speak publicly in a way beyond what you might do in a private conversation or in a speech and bring attention to some worthy causes.
LG: Do you think that’s because of the costumes, too?
CR-H: The costumes definitely draw attention.
LG: I noticed that the Grannies in Victoria have really elaborate costumes, from head to toe, and we tend to be really haphazard. Do you think we should try to be more comprehensive about costumes?
CR-H: I think we’d draw more attention if we did. The Victoria Grannies use props and costumes that I think are so appropriate to the particular message they’re trying to convey. And I think that’s a really good tool.
LG: What’s a good example of that, using a prop?
CR-H: When they were going to have the troop surge, someone suggested bringing surge protectors. Or there’s the initial idea of the umbrella, which is to protect from nuclear fallout -- the “nuclear umbrella.”
"One time we sang a recruiting song and marched along the street, which we’re planning to do on our next activity, on Jan. 21." - Cynthia Roberts-Hall
LG: I’d be for more elaborate costumes, but I’m kind of scared to do it by myself. My husband gave me a pink silk skirt for my birthday that he thought was very Grannyish, and it needs some sort of frilly blouse. I have a shawl and a hat with political buttons on it. Didn’t the book say that a trademark for Grannies was pink tennis shoes?
CR-H: Some groups did, and I think they wear feather boas a lot. I actually had red boa that had been hanging around in my daughter’s room. I’ve worn some crazy hats, some far out kinds of things. It makes it more enjoyable.
LG: My impression is that the more dressed up they are, the harder it is to deal with the Grannies by public officials because they look so old and fit the stereotype.
CR-H: I think the older you look, the better. If we wanted to push the boundaries a little more and go outside some safe bounds, in some instances that would mean possible arrest. I’ve been arrested at places before and I think others in the group might have been, also. I think we should maybe start a legal defense fund.
LG: Usually you’re given a warning -- for instance, “if you pass this boundary, you’re going to get arrested” -- so there’s enough of a chance to stop it.
LG: I’d like to see the Grannies get more political because I really do think it’s an activist group using singing as a tool. I’d be interested in going to more venues where we just turn up where we’re not wanted.
CR-H: As we get new people, we get more suggestions. As to places we can go, we plan to sing in the lobby before Sicko and Wendell Potter on Jan. 16. Toby Strout, director of Middle Way House, is on our list and left a message that Middle Way was speculating about having the Grannies at an event they’re planning for the fall, and she was glad to hear we would be interested in doing something like that.
LG: It’s good for the Grannies to get around.
CR-H: The more we get out there like that, then the more invites and suggestions in the search of new activities. Also, the Grannies get invited to music festivals. We’ve had about six Grannies who have done songs at some point in time. Often we collaborate or bring them to the table, and the whole group will refine them. We’ve been meeting on alternate weeks, but when we‘re not actually practicing the songs, as I suggested, we could meet in the interim, do some work on song writing. It’s good to have a particular event in mind.
LG: Do you think people would come?
"I think maybe we’re reaching people that might not otherwise hear what we’re saying." - Cynthia Roberts-Hall
CR-H: That’s hard to say. We’d just have to play it by ear and see what happens.
About costumes, last year I participated in the Trashion Refashion Show. I’ve always been interested in making garments, so I was thinking that maybe I should come up with some kind of totally trashion refashion. If you alter something enough, it is refashioned. That might be kind of a fun costume.
LG: Especially if the final product looks like a granny.
CR-H: Some of them are really traditional Grannies, but there is one of the Victoria Grannies who wears more of an elegant outfit, with pearls.
LG: Gloves make you really stand out.
DR-H: When we’re older we’ll look more impressive. Most of us are around 60 on average. We have some people in their 40s, and we’ve had younger people, which isn’t seen as a problem really.
Linda Greene is one of the newest Hoosier Raging Grannies. She can be reached at email@example.com.