A group of “socialist feminist women who like to sing” came together to form the Red Berets in Toronto in 1981. Their first gig was at the International Women’s Day rally held at City Hall on Saturday, March 7, 1981.
The Red Berets sang regularly at benefits, rallies, demonstrations and picket lines in and around Toronto from 1981 to 1988. Singing feminist songs as well as traditional songs of solidarity and struggle, the Red Berets also wrote their own songs or rewrote lyrics to highlight current issues. A Red Berets pamphlet from the early years says:
We are a grassroots singing group dedicated to making music accessible by encouraging audience participation….While we sing about a wide diversity of social issues – workers’ rights, disarmament, anti-intervention, anti-racism, choice on abortion and sexual orientation – our emphasis is on integrating these issues with concerns of the women’s movement.
Participation in the group was open, and numbers rose and fell over the years, but the group maintained a core of about twelve singers. The group resurfaced in 2002 and 2005 to sing at labour history conferences and in May 2014 to be themselves in the play, Life on the Line: Women Strike at Eaton’s 1984-85, by Pat McDermott. The Red Berets still sing together in protest from time to time. Eight Red Berets gathered to sing with others at the Toronto Harperman Singalong (“Harperman, it’s time for you to go!”) on September 17, 2015.
Songlist & Lyrics
The Red Berets sang many traditional songs, and often modified the words to be compatible with a socialist feminist perspective or rewrote them to fit a specific occasion. Imagine the joy in replacing the first few lines of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” with “Arise ye proletariat, let nothing you dismay/We all could buy more presents if we all got better pay”!
The group developed a number of so-called “zipper songs,” songs that were adapted again and again to suit specific events. The Red Berets’ favourite “zipper songs” included Arlene Mantle’s “Moving Mountains,” Holly Near’s “Singing for Our Lives” and the traditional African-American song, “Oh Freedom.”
More recordings by THE RED BERETS
Red Berets : Notes from a Discussion June 10, 1984
The Red Berets began as a small support group singing mainly on picket lines and at rallies. As we were increasingly asked to sing on stage in concert-like situations, there was pressure to be more accomplished and well-rehearsed.
These notes are from a discussion held by 12 Red Berets in June 1984. The discussion went around the circle, allowing everyone a chance to speak. The different voices reflect a tension between strengthening the support group role and wanting to be a more polished performance group. Many members expressed a desire to widen the membership to include more women.
Any woman was welcome to join. But members expected a minimum commitment – as the discussion makes clear – of attending the previous practice in order to sing at a more formal event.
- We should be able to do picket-line support on our own initiative.
- I favour the support side, singing at demos. Perhaps with time we could become more professional.
- I’d like to see our status clarified, and for us to be more polished.
- I would hate to see the group closed so that people couldn’t keep joining. I don’t see the contradiction between being more professional and having fun.
- People are in the group for different reasons. I’d like a stronger sense of collectivity.
- We need to find a way to be more honest with each other.
- I like the idea of bringing groups their own music. Let’s recruit women from groups we’d like to support.
- We should make links with blacks and Asians and other groups.
- Let’s remember how far we’ve come. We now have a built-in quality control and we should encourage new members – they’re what’s made us great.
- We need help with our presentation – let’s have a workshop from some director.
- We have a basic standard that we must all be in tune. We need some way of ensuring we’re in tune, of telling people when they’re not.
- We could use more instruments because it would improve the sound.
- I don’t like being the only guitarist because I don’t have enough time to practice.
- We should have a portable sound system. It’s a drag having to be “good sports” when the sound systems are rotten.
- I enjoy performances and would like to develop a facility and ease on stage.
- It would be great to get away from churchy, hymn-type music.
- We need a checklist for performances and for strike support.
- We should have some colour coordination in clothes for our performances.
- We could get Red Berets t-shirts.
- We need to learn how to teach songs to people.
- Teaching songs requires a lot of confidence.
- Womanly Way gives workshops on how to use mics, etc.
- Doing workshops would require a lot of time that people probably don’t have.
- In performances, our hearing isn’t always as acute because we’re nervous.
- Someone should bring a tape recorder to every practice so we can tape and critique our singing at the next practice.
- We have 16 people, whereas we used to have 25 or 26. We’ve always benefited from “new blood.” Let’s see if we can get more people committed for the next year, beginning in September.