Anne Feeney photo by Fred Walser
Over the past decades, local folkie Anne Feeney has headlined union and community organizing drives, strummed and sung for human rights, peace and the environment, and attacked the issues of poverty, racism, sexism and war both verbally and in song.
If she sounds like a child of the sixties cut out of the Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary mold, well, it's because she is.
Feeney was born in the Mon Valley town of Charleroi in Washington County in 1951, the first child of Annabelle Runner and Ed Feeney. The family moved to Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood in 1954, and Feeney was given a Catholic education, beginning with Resurrection Elementary School and then graduating from the now closed Fontbonne Academy in 1968.
After saving for a year, she bought a Martin D-28 guitar (maybe the most famous acoustic ever made; Hank Williams and Elvis Presley used the D-28) in 1967; she would play it for the next 40 years. She was, like many youth of the era, politically and philosophically shaped by the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement.
Feeney was also influenced by her grandpap, William Patrick Feeney, who was an long-time mineworkers' organizer and fiddler who played his music to promote political and labor causes.
As she says, her music is meant to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
She gave her first public performance in 1969 at an anti-war rally, covering Phil Ochs songs. While a Pitt student in 1972, she was arrested in Miami at the Republican National Convention while protesting Richard Nixon's re-nomination; the charges were dismissed.
Politics wasn't all that she was involved in. The same year, she helped co-found Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, along with Annie Pride and NOW. Almost forty tears later, it's still the only organization in Allegheny County solely devoted to issues of sexual violence.
She earned her sheepskin from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974 with a Liberal Studies (what else?) degree.
In 1976 Feeney started down her musical road when she joined a bluegrass band called Cucumber Rapids; they disbanded the next year.
She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1978 and spent the next dozen years as a trial attorney; in fact, she was a charter member of the Women’s Bar Association of Allegheny County.
As she worked cases and raised two children with her lawyer husband Ron Berlin, Feeney also performed in local clubs and at rallies, such as the Great Peace March at the Lincoln memorial in 1986, or at the Washington Monument for the 1989 March for Women’s Lives. Deciding that her guitar was a more effective tool than a legal brief, she took full-time to the road in 1991 and hasn't looked back.
Since then, Feeney has toured the US, Canada, Mexico, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, playing at folk festivals, labor conventions, churches, and political/labor demonstrations and rallies. She often tours 200+ days during the year.
Feeney has performed during events on Solidarity Day in DC, the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, the EU protests in Copenhagen, the LO Kongress in Stockholm and the March for Women’s Lives in Washington. Of course, she took part in several G20 related events when that show came to Pittsburgh.
She received the Joe Hill award from the Labor Heritage Foundation in 2005; a couple of other past winners were Pete Seeger and Cesar Chavez. The late activist Utah Phillips called Feeney "the best labor singer in North America."
Her music has been played and recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary - "Have You Been to Jail for Justice?" - and that tune has been featured in the documentaries "This is What Democracy Looks Like," "Isn't This a Time: A Tribute to Harold Leventhal" and PBS show "Get Up/Stand Up: The History of Pop and Protest." Political cartoonist Mike Konopacki used Feeney's song "Union Maid" in a flash animation in 2003.
Not that she really needs anyone's help. She's part of a dozen CD releases, with eight solo efforts:
* Look to the Left, 1992
* Heartland (Live), 1994
* Have You Been to Jail for Justice?, 2001
* Union Maid, 2003
* Original Recordings, 2004
* If I Can't Dance, 2006
* Dump the Bosses Off Your Back, 2008
* Enchanted Way, 2010
With Chris Chandler:
* Flying Poetry Circus, 2001
* Live from the Wholly Stolen Empire, 2003
* Wild Wimmin for Peace: The Great Peace March, 1986
* Vote in November - Election 2004 by: Anti-Theft Device, 2004
(The disks are available through CD Baby or her website.)
Her music isn't all original, but follows an Americana template: bluegrass, traditional, labor, pop, folk, contemporary and her own material make up her playlist.
As expected, Feeney has her union bona fides. She served as president of the Pittsburgh Musicians' Union, the only woman ever elected to the position, from 1997-1998. Feeney is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies").
She also helped, with other folkie troubadours, to establish Local #1000 of the American Federation of Musicians, the "Traveling Musicians’ Union," in 1993. It represents acoustic players who perform most of their gigs away from their local AFM jurisdiction.
Feeney has paid her social dues as well, as she was president of a local NOW chapter, served on the board of the Thomas Merton Center and helped found PAAR.
She married labor attorney Ron Berlin in 1977, had two kids, Dan and Amy, and ended that union in 1995. In 2002, Feeney married Swedish political artist Julie Leonardsson, and they crash in Swissvale.
Feeney is fighting a new foe now; she was diagnosed with cancer this summer. She's battling on two fronts, trying to whip the tumor and raise money to pay the bills (you'd be surprised at how many working musicians there are who don't bring home enough bacon to pay for health insurance). She probably never realized how her quest for National Health Insurance would end up on her doorstep.
She's got a lot of friends; benefits have been held for her in Chicago, Eugene, Lexington and Cleveland among other spots. There was a local show for her just last week, and Mr. Small's in Millvale is hosting a super pre-Christmas event on December 12th.
Performing will be Joe Munroe, Mike Stout and the Human Union, Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, Hermie Granati, Liz Berlin of Rusted Root, Joe Grushecky and others.
If you'd like to donate to the cause, you can use PayPal on her webpage or just send a check; her address is also on the web site.
"Have You Been To Jail For Justice?" - Anne Feeney