Honoring the legacy of hell raising labor singer Anne Feeney

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Influential folk musician, activist, and hellraiser Anne Feeney passed away from COVID-19 at the age of 69 on February 3rd, 2021, while her community sang to her via video and her children, Amy Sue Berlin and Daniel Berlin, held her hands. Utah Phillips called Anne “the best labor singer in North America.”

Starting in 1987–when she was inspired by Faith Petric to quit her job as an attorney and dedicate her life to touring and making music in support of workers–Anne played more than 4,000 shows across North America and Europe. She performed for striking workers on countless picket lines, in union halls, and at some of the largest protests of the last century, including the protests that shut down the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and the March for Women’s Lives in 2004. Her performance at the WTO was featured in the documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like. She organized dozens of tours supporting various causes, including the Sing Out for Single Payer Healthcare tour in 2009, and raised tens of thousands of dollars for strike funds and progressive causes.

Anne’s anthem “Have You Been to Jail for Justice” has been sung by activists around the world, and was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary. She was a songwriter, but also a song collector who gave life to classic union hymns like Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” and Joe Hill’s “Dump the Bosses off Your Back.” She released 12 albums over the course of her career, and shared stages with iconic artists like Pete Seeger, Loretta Lynn, John Prine, Toshi Reagon, The Mammals, Dan Bern, the Indigo Girls, and Billy Bragg. A lover of Irish music, she committed hundreds of Irish songs to memory, and led yearly singing tours of Ireland. She was a regular at Kerrville Folk Festival, Oregon Country Fair, and other major festivals.

Anne Feeney was born July 1, 1951, in Charleroi, PA, and lived in the Brookline neighborhood of Pittsburgh. She was influenced by her grandfather, William Patrick Feeney, who was a first-generation Irish immigrant, a mineworkers’ organizer, and violinist who used music to support working-class organizing.

Anne performed publicly for the first time in 1969, singing a Phil Ochs song at a protest against the Vietnam War. In 1972, she was arrested at the Republican National Convention where she was protesting Richard Nixon’s re-nomination for president. That same year, Anne attended the 2nd Annual Conference on Women and the Law. Inspired by the group that founded “Women Organized Against Rape” in Philadelphia, she began a campaign for a rape crisis center in Pittsburgh. The work begun by her committee evolved into Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, which still provides services to survivors of sexual assault in the Pittsburgh area. She served on the executive board of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW), and as the president of the Pittsburgh Musicians’ Union, the first and only woman to ever hold that position.

Anne received a bachelor of arts degree from University of Pittsburgh in 1974 and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1978. She practiced as a trial lawyer for 12 years, primarily representing refugees and survivors of domestic violence. In 1977 Feeney married labor attorney Ron Berlin; the couple had two children Dan and Amy, and later amicably divorced. In 2002, she married Swedish political artist Julie Leonardsson. She was a long time member of Local 1000 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In August 2010, while touring in Sweden, Feeney was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. Musician and friend Bev Grant organized a benefit concert for Anne at the SEIU 1199 hall in New York City headlined by Pete Seeger and Peter Yarrow. Many other artists around the country organized benefits as well. Anne underwent treatment, and was back on the road a few years later. The cancer returned in 2015, but Feeney defeated it again. Her daughter, Amy Sue Berlin, organized a benefit album of artists covering Feeney’s songs, including Peter Yarrow, Emma’s Revolution, Dan Bern, Anti-Flag, and Holly Near.

Daughter Amy Sue Berlin announced her passing on Facebook, writing “It is with a very heavy heart that we must announce the passing of our courageous, brilliant, beautiful mother, Anne Feeney. We were very lucky that she fought hard enough to open up her eyes, and give us a couple days to be with her before she finally decided it was time to let go.”

In lieu of sending flowers, Anne’s children ask supporters to make a donation to the Thomas Merton Center, a social justice activist hub in Pittsburgh, in her honor.

Photo montage of Anne and her loved ones compiled by Bev Grant

Renowned spoken word poet Chris Chandler, who toured with Feeney for more than a decade, wrote that Feeney’s “insistence that we all use our voice, our art, to drown and extinguish the fires that threaten us, was evident in her sleeves-rolled-up service to countless struggles.”

Punk singer/songwriter and activist Evan Greer, who organized nearly a dozen tours with Anne, said that Feeney was a “Hater of scabs and lover of life. Tireless fighter for the working class and all oppressed people. A true folk singer who wrote songs sung by thousands, on picket lines and in jail cells, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable … my dearest friend and mentor who taught me the true meaning of solidarity.”

Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, said, “The great folk musician Anne Feeney was a fearless and formidable force for justice and workers’ rights onstage, in the studio, and on the picket line. Through her art and through her example our I.W.W. comrade will continue to be a beacon of hope and solidarity for future generations.”

Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, said, “Anne Feeney was a deeply committed songwriter/activist in the grand tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She was joyous and fiery in her determination to use her music to elevate those who are most marginalized and to move towards greater justice in the land. For Annie, it was a way of life. Her song “Have You Been to Jail for Justice”, that our trio recorded, was an anthem for all of us who joined with Annie in “the good fight”.

“I had seen artists include politics in their show before,” Anti-Flag frontman Justin Sane, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “but Anne Feeney was the first artist I encountered whose set was unapologetically and ferociously political. That set had a major impact on me as an artist. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is the kind of musician I want to be. This woman is punk as hell!’”

Pat Humphries of Emma’s Revolution wrote, “Anne Feeney was my friend and fellow hell raiser for nearly 40 years. Our paths crossed frequently forging a solid friendship from our shared roots in the Industrial Midwest. Anne was a force of Nature, as determined as the rivers that crisscrossed her native home of Pittsburgh. As a songwriter, collector and interpreter of songs, she fiercely aimed her rapier wit and sweet voice to expose the greed and hypocrisy of the machine. She sang in the streets, the mines and the picket lines with solidarity as true as the union-made steel that once proudly rose from her beloved Allegheny hills. My heart is broken. I loved her dearly. I will miss her scrappy brashness and unbridled laughter. We sang each other’s songs and I will carry on singing her sassy, Irish spirit in every word and every note.”

Singer/songwriter Dar Williams wrote, “I wanted to quote the song Have You Been to Jail for Justice in a book I was writing, and I assumed it was a public domain standard. It was Anne’s song! Luckily I knew Anne and asked her permission. She wrote right back and said yes, like the true friend and folk sister she was.”

Liz Berlin of Rusted Root said that Anne Feeney “introduced me to the world of folk music and activism.”

Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger told Anne, “Congratulations on your fine songwriting!”

Renowned folk singer Holly Near said, “Anne left a big mark with her smile, her songs, her commitment to labor…and to Ireland. Yes, another good one gone and yet, mighty glad she passed through while so many of us were around to get a full tumbler of her goodness.”

Musician Laura Love added, “I listened to her recording of “I’m sticking with the Union” today and broke down when she sang, “till the day I die.” How could that day have come so soon for my hero, my champion of worker’s rights. How can I ever repay her for all the work she did on my behalf. My only consolation is knowing there will finally be a union in Heaven.”

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This post was put together by Evan Greer and Chris Chandler, Anne’s close friends and touring partners of many years, in the interest of ensuring that Anne receives the recognition and remembrance she deserves. Please send suggestions, edits, inquiries to evangreer@gmail.com

Evan Greer is a musician, writer and activist based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @evan_greer

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