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Pittsburgh’s hellraising labor singer Anne Feeney gets the party she deserves at Mr. Smalls

Singer Anne Feeney in front of the monument for labor leader "Mother Jones."
Courtesy of Amy Sue Berlin

Pittsburgh labor singer Anne Feeney was known for many things. Screaming obscenities at scabs. Prolific songwriting. Prolific song collecting. Mentoring young musicians. She was known for her anthem “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?”— and she was known for actually going to jail for justice.

But among her family and friends? She was also known for her parties.

“She would have these St. Patrick’s Day parties every year that were just outrageous,” said Amy Sue Berlin, Feeney’s daughter. “Music and friends and family and dancing, and all centered around song.”

And so when Feeney died from COVID-19 in 2021 at the age of 69, Berlin said one of the hardest parts was not being able to get together and have a really great party in her honor.

To make it right, Feeney’s friends and family are hosting a May Day memorial concert at Mr. Smalls Theatre, featuring performances by the constellation of labor and justice musicians of which she was a part, including folk duo Emma’s Revolution, Rusted Root band member Liz Berlin, queer punk singer Evan Greer and the Pittsburgh Labor Choir.

“It’s going to be this who’s who of musical inspiration and musical activism,” said Liz Berlin, who also co-owns Mr. Smalls Theatre. She was 16 when she met Feeney after an open stage event at Pittsburgh lesbian bar Bloomers. “We’re going to pack the theater.”

Pittsburgh’s Hellraiser

Feeney had a national profile in the labor music scene, but her music and politics were inextricably Pittsburgh. She came from a union family, hearing bedtime stories about the Coal and Iron Police facing off against her Irish immigrant grandfather, William Patrick Feeney. He was a mine workers' organizer and violinist who used to sneak into company towns to meet workers.

A woman performs in front of a crowd.
Llewellyn Gannon
Courtesy of Amy Sue Berlin
Anne Feeney at the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C.

“He’d have to slip under barbed wire fence that had machine gun turrets at the perimeter to keep union people out,” Feeney said in a 2021 interview with KSVR in Mount Vernon, Washington.

He’d head to a secret location, often in the root cellar of someone’s house. But before he spoke about the union, he had to make sure there were no stool pigeons in the room. As he waited for his host to tell him the coast was clear, he played music.

“He would play Croatian and Serbian and Hungarian and Estonian and Latvian tunes on his violin,” Feeney said. “And if somebody came in that was suspicious, they’d say, ‘Nothing going on here. It’s a music concert. Go away.’ And they’d leave. And eventually he’d get time to talk union.”

Feeney carried on her grandfather’s legacy of using music to support workers. A University of Pittsburgh-educated attorney and folk singer, she became active in the labor movement in the 1980s, singing on the picket lines during the Pittsburgh janitors’ lockout.

“It was so bitter cold,” Feeney said. “And the Building Owners’ Association got an injunction to stop [the workers] from having burn barrels outside the buildings to keep them from freezing to death while they were picketing. And two people died from the stress.”

In 1987, she left her job as an attorney and began touring and making labor music full-time, going on to play more than 4,000 shows on picket lines, at union halls and at some of the largest protests of the last century, including the million-person March for Women’s Lives in 2004.

Original punk

In the early 2000s, Feeney met punk musician Evan Greer in New York City, at a gathering for the People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle.

“[It’s] exactly what it sounds like. It’s a bunch of communist grandmothers with banjos,” Greer said. “I was a 19-year-old anarchist punk … trying to revive this idea of folk music as a tool for supporting movements for justice and liberation.”

Greer played her song “¡Ya Basta!” at the event.

“Anne made a beeline for me from across the room and was like, ‘You got any other songs like that?’”

A few months later, Feeney asked Greer to go on tour with her. Greer dropped out of college and toured with Feeney for the next 15 years, playing venues ranging from anarchist punk warehouses to Unitarian churches.

Musician Evan Greer plays an acoustic set with Anne Feeney.
Courtesy Evan Greer
Musician Evan Greer plays an acoustic set with Anne Feeney.

“Sometimes I would go on these tours with [my mom] and we’d walk into these union halls where everyone was so old,” Feeney’s daughter Berlin said. “Evan really helped her to transform. They would go on tour together and Evan’s fan base would come and see my mom and think of her as like an original punk.”

Call and response

In this way, Feeney’s music continues to find new audiences, as young organizers learn her songs through groups like the Pittsburgh Labor Choir, who will sing at the May 1 memorial concert.

“She was definitely a musician who used that participatory quality,” said Edwin Everhart, Pittsburgh Labor Choir founder. “She calls out a line, has the crowd repeat the line, and then she calls up the next line, has the crowd repeat the next line.”

The choir has several Feeney songs in its repertoire, including the spoof gospel tune, “He Will Answer,” about the Sago Mine disaster in 2006, in which 12 West Virginia coal miners were killed in an explosion. The song includes the lyrics, It is easier to get a camel through a needle’s eye / Than a rich man into heaven.

Everhart said the key to Feeney’s music—and labor music in general—is accessibility.

“You’re not about to rap along to somebody who’s going at Mach 4, spitting incredible virtuosic lyrics,” Everhart said. “The crowd can’t do it.”

That’s why labor music is a little throwback, drawing on folk, bluegrass and church roots. It’s music that is meant to be singable by a large crowd—and that offers more emotional range than chanting.

“When you're just all yelling together, you're doing anger,” Everhart said. “But when you're doing a song together? [You get] tender sadness. Mourning. Joy. Celebration. Hope.”

Everhart's hope for Feeney’s memorial concert?

“The whole hall ringing like a bell, with everyone singing together.”

The “Celebrating Pittsburgh’s Hellraiser: Anne Feeney” concert takes place Wednesday, May 1 at Mr. Smalls Theatre. Doors at 6 p.m. Free and open to the public with RSVP. Donation suggested. 

There will be a panel at the Heinz History Center at 12 p.m., also on May 1, moderated by Evan Greerand featuring panelists Pittsburgh labor organizer Rosemary Trump, coal miner and teacher Kipp Dawson, women’s rights organizer Jeanne Clark and New York musician Bev Grant.

The Heinz History Center recently opened their new exhibit, “A Woman’s Place: How Women Shaped Pittsburgh.” Artifacts and stories from Anne Feeney’s life are on display there through October 6, including the guitar she played throughout her career—and her t-shirt reading “A Woman’s Place is in her Union.