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Anne Feeney, songwriter and political activist, dies at 69

Singer and labor activist Anne Feeney in the woods near her home.
Singer and labor activist Anne Feeney in the woods near her home. (Martha Rial/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
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Anne Feeney, a Pittsburgh-based folk singer, songwriter and guitarist who was known for rollicking political anthems that extolled civil rights activism and labor unions while eviscerating corporate greed and forms of oppression, died Feb. 3 at a hospital in Pittsburgh. She was 69.

She had been undergoing physical therapy for a fractured back before she developed coronavirus-related pneumonia, said her daughter, Amy Sue Berlin.

Ms. Feeney, a self-described “hell raiser” with a velvety voice and lush red locks, began a professional recording career in the late 1980s after working as a trial lawyer for more than 10 years. As a musician, she blended elements of Irish, bluegrass, folk and pop music while coupling many of her melodies with political lyrics, sometimes tinged with satire and humor, that were reminiscent of 1960s protest songs.

She released 12 albums, and her biggest hit — “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” — was also recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. The song begins:

Was it Cesar Chavez? Maybe it was Dorothy Day

Some will say Dr. King or Gandhi set them on their way

No matter who your mentors are it’s pretty plain to see

That, if you’ve been to jail for justice, you’re in good company.

In the 2000 documentary “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” she can be seen singing about civil disobedience on a stage with the United Steelworkers at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. As she sings, the video shows police arresting demonstrators.

Her other recordings include original songs like “I Married a Hero,” “Look to the Left” and “War on the Workers,” as well as covers — in some cases with updated lyrics — of union hymns “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back,” “Solidarity Forever” and “The Internationale.”

Ms. Feeney often spent between 200 and 300 days of the year on tour, performing at folk festivals, fairs and concert halls across the country and in Europe. She toured at times with Pete Seeger, Loretta Lynn, John Prine and the Indigo Girls.

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As an activist singer, she raised money for union shops and progressive causes, performing at churches, picket lines, and labor and political demonstrations, including the 2004 March for Women’s Lives on the National Mall in Washington.

“She would track where workers were on strike. She just wasn’t singing about the union movement; she was part of the movement,” said Evan Greer, a musician, songwriter and activist who toured with Ms. Feeney for about nine years until health problems in 2015 prevented her from traveling. “She was always passing the hat at her gigs for one strike fund or another, even when she was scraping by herself.”

Ms. Feeney, who served as president of the Pittsburgh Musicians’ Union from 1997 to 1998 and was its first and only woman elected to that post, took a hiatus from performing in 2010 when she was diagnosed with single cell lung cancer and told she could have only weeks to live. She recovered and continue to tour until the cancer returned in 2015. She then did occasional shows, most recently a virtual online performance in December.

Anne Feeney was born July 1, 1951, in Charleroi, Pa., a blue-collar town on the banks of the Monongahela River, and grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Brookline. Her father was an engineer at Westinghouse Electric Co., and her mother was a homemaker.

A descendant of Irish immigrants who worked in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania, Ms. Feeney grew up in a home where traditional Irish music and singing were a constant. Years later, she organized and led summer singing tours of Ireland.

Ms. Feeney started playing the guitar in high school and performed publicly for the first time at an antiwar protest in 1969.

While attending the University of Pittsburgh, she joined the antiwar and anti-apartheid group Thinking Students for Peace and was arrested in 1972 while protesting the renomination of President Richard M. Nixon at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. She also served on a committee that started the rape crisis center Pittsburgh Action Against Rape.

She graduated from Pitt with a bachelor’s degree in 1974 and a law degree four years later. She worked more than 10 years as a trial lawyer but took on only cases she believed in, said her niece, Kimberly Sever. “Anne approached everything she cared about with the same tenacious passion,” Sever said.

Her marriage to Ron Berlin, with whom she had two children, ended in divorce. In 2002, she married Swedish political artist Julie Leonardsson.

In addition to her husband, of Kopparberg, Sweden, and her daughter, Amy Sue Berlin of Austin, survivors include a son, Dan Berlin of Mexico City; and a sister.

“She believed in the power of music to reach and inspire people in a way that you couldn’t in an essay or speech,” Greer said. “While she had strongly held political views and worked her whole life for the things she believed in, she always did it with love and joy even as it was backed up with anger at injustice.”

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