By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Anne Feeney, the legendary Pittsburgh folk singer-songwriter and self-described rabble-rouser, has died of COVID at age 69.
Her daughter, Amy Sue Berlin, shared the news in a Facebook post on Wednesday night, writing, in part, “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.”
“It is with a very heavy heart that we must announce the passing of our courageous, brilliant, beautiful mother, Anne…”
Born in Charleroi and raised in Brookline, Feeney took early inspiration from her grandfather, William Patrick Feeney, a mine worker’s union organizer and a violinist. In 1967, while still in high school, she bought a Martin guitar and did her first public performance, singing Phil Ochs songs, at an anti-war rally in 1969. She was arrested at the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972 protesting the nomination of President Richard Nixon.
Also in 1972, while at the University of Pittsburgh, she co-founded Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. She graduated from the Pitt School of Law in 1978, worked 12 years as a trial attorney and served as president of the Pittsburgh Musician’s Union. She also was president of a NOW chapter and served on the board of the Thomas Merton Center.
During that period, she married labor attorney Ron Berlin, with whom she raised two children, Dan and Amy. (They were divorced in 1995.)
In 1991, she hit the road hard, traveling around the country to perform at folk festivals, labor conventions and rallies, including the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, Solidarity Day in Washington, D.C., and the 2004 March for Women’s Lives.
Her business card read: “Performer, Producer, Hellraiser.”
In 1992, she delivered her debut album, “Look to the Left.” Her subsequent albums in the ‘90s and ‘00s — mixing original and traditional songs and blending folk, pop, Irish and bluegrass — included “Union Maid,” “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” and “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back.” Her songs were recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and she shared stages with such legends as Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg and Loretta Lynn. Her song “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” is featured in such documentaries as “This is What Democracy Looks Like” and “Get Up/Stand Up: The History of Pop and Protest.”
In reviewing one of her albums, The Fort Worth Weekly wrote, “Dissent is an essential element of the American ideal. Feeney has never shied away from expressing opinions that are unpopular with people who have the loudest voices.”
In 2005, she received the Joe Hill Award from the Labor Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Feeney’s career was put on hold in 2010 when she was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. Three years later, it was in remission. To help her during the downtime, Berlin, a folk singer herself, curated the benefit tribute album to her mom, “War on the Workers,” which featured Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), Holly Near, Dan Bern, Anti-Flag, Emma’s Revolution and more doing political/protest songs. Her second husband, Swedish political artist Julie Leonardsson, created the cover art.
Mr. Yarrow stated in the liner notes, “For decades, I’ve held Anne in great esteem: for her determined heart, her passionate commitment to justice and the way she’s lived the messages of the folk tradition (just as Peter, Paul, and Mary did) putting her life and her presence out there to speak about and sing about what needs to be shared.”
“I had seen artists include politics in their show before,” Anti-Flag frontman Justin Sane said upon its release, “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!’ And she still is!”
Rusted Root’s Liz Berlin, who covered Feeney’s “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” in her Social Justice Disco project with Phat Man Dee, noted last week that Feeney, her musical mentor, “introduced me to the world of folk music and activism.”
“First time I saw her I was 17 at a hospital workers strike in Canonsburg,” Man Dee said. “She was [expletive] fierce, with amp on back and guitar in her arms, her hair bouncing out of her sun visor like a shampoo commercial as the cops were throwing protestors into school busses. I wanted to be just like her.”
Feeney’s friend and bandmate Rick Lacy posted Wednesday night that he met Feeney in 1968 when he was 18 and she was 16. She had placed an ad looking for musicians to play with. They gigged together and he would become her bassist in 1990.
“I had no idea,” he wrote, “she had gotten so well known in the interim. My first job with her was at Penn State in front of close to 1,000 people. I had just learned her songs and was playing a totally unfamiliar instrument but it worked out okay. I will tell you that my knees were shaking though. We had some wonderful tours and I got to play bass on 2 of her albums. Traveling and playing with her rank up with my top memories and there are so many stories to tell.”
Among them, he notes, was a gig in Vegas with Tony Orlando and Dawn.
According to Amy Berlin’s Facebook posts, Feeney was living in a senior care facility, where she suffered a fractured vertebrae that sent her to a nursing facility. She was diagnosed with a Covid-related pneumonia in late January.
In a 2008 interview, Feeney told the Post-Gazette, “I think music is a fantastic way of empowering people and giving them strength and energy. I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to find and write music that will empower people to resist and stand up for what’s right.”
In lieu of sending flowers or cash donations, Berlin asks that people consider making a donation to the Thomas Merton Center in her honor.