Anne Feeney, a key part of the folk music movement and a committed political and labor activist, died Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Pa. from complications of Covid-19. She was 69 and her daughter, Amy Sue Berlin, announced her passing on Facebook.
Feeney was a major player on the folk circuit, the first woman president of a musicians union in the US, and a regular collaborator with folk icons like Pete Seeger, John Prine, and Peter Paul and Mary. Her anthem Have You Been to Jail for Justice is sung on picket lines and in jail cells around the world.
Her career included more than 4,000 shows across North America and Europe performing for striking workers, in union halls, and large protests. Her performance at the World Trade Organization protests in 1999 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.
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 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.
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.
Feeney graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1978 and practiced as a trial lawyer for 12 years, primarily representing refugees and survivors of domestic violence. She was an active member of the American Federation of Musicians and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
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 from 1981 to 1997, the first and only woman to ever hold that position.
Tributes to Feeney poured in from musicians who knew her and her lifelong work.
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 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!’”
Liz Berlin of Rusted Root said that Anne Feeney “introduced me to the world of folk music and activism.”
Survivors include her children, Amy Sue Berlin and Daniel Berlin. In lieu of 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.
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