When beloved labor singer/activist Anne Feeney passed earlier this month, memories of her work and ties to Madison poured in from around the city, state and country. WORT is honored to share these vivid, heartfelt contributions from a number of those who were proud to call her a comrade and friend. (featured photos from Solidarity Sing Along by Jon Miner)
Anne Feeney remembered
On February 3, legendary folksinger and labor activist Anne Feeney died of COVID-19 pneumonia at the age of sixty-nine. Feeney was a skilled singer and organizer in the musical tradition of Joe Hill and Pete Seeger, and the labor movement tradition of Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Mother Jones. In 2015, she performed in the centennial celebrations of labor singer Joe Hill. Feeney’s songs like “Have You Been to Jail for Justice” inspired activists and fueled protests.
Feeney was on the frontlines of countless struggles, always there when she was needed. I remember seeing her in 1999 jump up on the back of a flatbed truck in Seattle during the anti-WTO protests and sing to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney (who also died the same week on February 1 at the age of eighty-six). Feeney’s anthem “War On the Workers” chronicles the years-long attack by multinational capitalism on everyday working people.
Feeney was also an advocate of independent media and especially community radio. Her song “Look to the Left” talks about those stations on the left end of the FM radio dial that “count on you, not Arbitron,” the song even mentions WORT by name. Anne Feeney loved Madison and came to perform here often. In 2011 and 2012 she joined Madison’s Solidarity Sing-along in protesting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on workers’ rights.
Feeney’s last visit to Madison was March 23, 2019 where she shared the stage with fellow activist musician David Rovics in a benefit for the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The two also conducted an afternoon workshop on “The Role Of Music in Social Movements and Popular Education.”
Her voice and her optimism for the possibility of a better world will be sorely missed.
— Norm Stockwell, publisher of The Progressive & WORT volunteer/former staff
As a long time and former host of Her Infinite Variety, women in music heard on Sundays here on WORT, I interviewed and had many guests on the show. I always enjoyed Anne Feeney’s music, which often had a place on my playlist due to the political nature of my programming. May Day or Labor Day themed shows generally had Anne’s take on working people, especially women. As a guest, Anne and I had lively discussions about progressive ideas and current events and her energy was always contagious as she played and sang her songs of struggle with insightful commentaries. I am sorry this women activist is no longer with us but her music lives on in her many recordings and that’s good news for all of us.
— Sue Goldwomon, host of WORT’s Her Infinite Variety 1983-2009
FEENEY WAS THERE
In his memoriam of Anne Feeney (see below) Ron Kaminkow writes that he first met Anne on the frontlines of the central Illinois “Labor Warzone” of the mid 1990s. It might be that that was also where I first heard Anne singing. But I don’t think I met her until a little later on, through Ron and the May Day (and Earth Day to May Day) organizing in Wisconsin that he mentions.
At one point in that process (1998, I think) I organized a show at der Rathskeller in the UW-Madison Memorial Union. We billed it as “A Watermelon Jam.” This billing was a play on the right-wing rap against environmentalism: that it was green on the outside and red on the inside. I put together a lineup featuring the Earth First! musician and activist Robert Hoyt (see a documentary in which Robert visits Madison, here), my newfound anarchist friend, David Rovics (see David’s tribute to Anne here), and Anne. Robert was the green, Anne was the red, and David represented the black watermelon seeds.
It was a wonderful show. I remember looking over and seeing David Newby singing in full voice with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on his face (and Dave can smile). And it went a little ways toward showing, as Anne put it, that “us reds really are greens, too.” Building solidarity was what it was about: Building a new politics (what folks are calling “ecosocialist” these days) and above all, creating a common culture and community for the long run.
In the following years, whenever I had the opportunity to do so, I invited Anne to participate in events and rallies in Wisconsin and in other places. And at several points Anne affirmatively reached out to me and offered to lend us her talent. Knowing how difficult the life of a movement artist usually is, I tried to be careful about asking too much. And yet, when Anne offered, as she did in donating her time and travel to the first Democracy Conventions in Madison (we listed her as a “national sponsor” along with major non-profit organizations and unions, as well as movement musicians like Pat and Sandy of Emma’s Revolution), I said “of course, yes!” And then my long list of things that made me grateful that Anne Feeney was around grew longer.
In recent years I’ve taken my life in some new directions. We have three little boys who’ve sung “Union Maid” with Anne on the car speakers on the way to school. And I’ve been teaching at the college level, where I get to work with my students in studying social movements and social change. These changes in my life situation (along with Anne’s struggles with cancer) made it so that I didn’t get a chance to see her in person in the last years of her life. But it also has meant that her music is an even-more present force in my day-to-day. Anne Feeney’s songs have been regular parts of the musical playlist I run before each class. I link the songs to the lectures and themes of the week. As you might imagine, her music is often relevant. And the clip in the Seattle 1999 WTO uprising film, “This is What Democracy Looks Like” in which Anne is performing while wearing a Wisconsin Earth Day to May Day t-shirt? Well, that’s always useful for demonstrating to my students the idea of “movement continuity.”
This past week I was teaching a unit on gender as a power relation for my course on “Power, Politics and Society.” Next week we turn to the study of class and class politics. You know that Anne’s music was already queued up for these two weeks. I teared up yesterday when introducing Anne’s singing of “Bread and Roses” and “Union Maid.”
To borrow from a tribute to another great Irish-American internationalist rebel, James Connolly:
“And Feeney was there, Feeney was there
Bold, brave and undaunted; Anne Feeney was there.”
Anne Feeney was always bold, brave and undaunted. She was always there for the struggle, and long will she be.
— Ben Manski
(Photo courtesy of Railroad Workers United)
Anne Feeney “caught the westbound” (railroad worker/hobo slang for when someone dies) while the Railroad Workers United (RWU) Steering Committee monthly business meeting was drawing to a close last night. Her recent dire health situation had been scheduled on the agenda, to be discussed under Good and Welfare. We received an email just 15 minutes prior to adjournment announcing that she had passed. It was a solemn moment for us.
Anne has helped close out each of our six RWU Conventions since our founding in the Spring of 2008. She has faithfully been there to lead us in “Solidarity Forever” once the final gavel had come down. In the evening following the Convention, RWU has traditionally hosted a big reception/party in the evening, and Anne – never one to miss out on a good workers’ celebration – has regularly been there as well, to entertain us and bring her indomitable spirit of struggle, humor, love and solidarity to the railroad workers.
Anne was a great foot soldier in the class struggle. She tirelessly and unapologetically used her voice, her guitar and her songwriting skills to advance the cause of working people and the labor movement. With wit, humor and keen insight, her brash lyrics and delivery were invigorating and inspiring to workers in struggle. At rallies and demonstrations, on picket lines and at protests, on the streets as well as in bars, cafes, concert halls and union halls across the continent, she was a musical version of another great hellraiser, Mother Jones.
I first met Anne Feeney when thousands of workers from across the country converged on Decatur, Illinois during the “War Zone” days, when workers at A.E. Staley, Firestone, and then Caterpillar were all engaged in industrial actions with their respective employers in the region. Upon arrival in Decatur for a big joint protest rally and march, I would see Anne Feeney up on an outdoor makeshift stage, banging away on a guitar, rallying the troops, as thousands of workers milled about, preparing for the day’s actions. Before the events were concluded, tens of thousands of union workers would take the streets of Decatur, and Anne – along with others – would be arrested.
From that day until I last spoke with her before the holidays, Anne and I have remained in touch. She regularly was on hand for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Community Services Conference each year in April, and always made time to visit us in Madison every International Workers Day (May Day) where she was a regular fixture for many years, leading the traditional May Day Sing Along, and performing at rallies, demonstrations and picnics all over town – at the Labor Temple, Mickey’s Tavern, the State Capitol, Tenney Park, the Olin Park Barn, Wilmar Center, and elsewhere. She always said it was one of her favorite things to do each year. In addition, Anne gave other performances in Madison at various times over the last 25 years or so, including one at the Labor Temple with Faith Petric in the late 1990s, and as part of the Joe Hill 100th Tour at the Barrymore Theatre in 2015.
I would attend locomotive engineer training school for six weeks in Conway, PA in 1998, just down the Ohio River from Anne’s hometown of Pittsburgh. So we would rendezvous regularly throughout my apprenticeship during that spring. Anne had just been elected President of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Pittsburgh area local union on a platform of bringing young alternative musicians and bands into the aging and ailing local. She certainly had her work cut out for her, but still found time to go galavanting around town in the evenings. We even headed out one weekend to Marietta, Ohio to perform for a group of striking industrial workers on the banks of the Ohio.
Anne was a good friend and comrade, the best. She was always there, at the ready, to plunge herself into the latest manifestation of the class struggle. Fearless, humourous and bold, never doubting the righteousness of the cause, never concerned about reprisal, not particularly interested about whose feathers she was ruffling, Anne embraced the workers’ causes. Railroad workers – and workers all across the country – will miss you dearly, Anne.
Yours for the One Big Union,
— Ron Kaminkow, General Secretary, Railroad Workers United