“I’m very seldom speechless, but this was such a glorious surprise,” Feeney says of War on the Workers: A Tribute to Anne Feeney, which she received a copy of shortly before Christmas. “But then I started to wonder how they managed to pull it off. A lot of the artists on the tribute are friends that I’ve known for years and toured with, and most I’ve seen in the past year and they didn’t say a word.”
Even more amazing is that the vibrant cover art — featuring a bare-breasted Feeney, with an American flag in one hand and a guitar in the other, charging into battle against this country’s corporate and political oppressors — was created by her husband, Swedish artist Julie Leonardsson. “I never saw him working on it,” she says with a laugh. “It was all so special.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Feeney both deserves a tribute, and has the musical catalog to support a 16-track record. Since 1991, she has been performing her music at social-justice rallies and protests, and has shared the stage with musicians like Pete Seeger and Loretta Lynn. Peter, Paul and Mary once recorded her song, “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” and Peter Yarrow, of PPM, records the song on this record.
In Feeney’s case, the answer to that question is yes. Twenty years before she started touring the world to fight for social justice, she was involved in activism. She was first arrested in 1972, at the Republican National Convention in Miami. Born in Charleroi and still based in Pittsburgh, she spent years pushing for a rape-crisis center in the city. That fight led to the creation of, Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, which is still operational today. Feeney has never been one to shy away from a fight, which is sort of how the record came about.
The album was the spur-of-the-moment brainchild of Feeney’s daughter, Amy Sue Berlin, a singer/songwriter living in Austin. She says the idea for a tribute record came from a place of love and concern for her mother, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010. Since her diagnosis, Feeney had been involved in all-out battle against the disease. That fight, Berlin says, has definitely taken its toll on her mother physically, emotionally and financially.
Feeney, Berlin says, was “one of the most articulate people I’ve ever known.” However, “full cranial radiation” drastically affected Feeney’s short-term memory, and Berlin says that makes it especially hard for an artist who does all of her own writing and booking.
“Unfortunately, it’s affected her ability to tour, and it has changed her stage performance. But I think she’s come to terms with where she is, and she’s moving forward,” Berlin says. “Also, as a folk singer, a musician, she doesn’t have a pension plan. I wanted to do something that would lift her spirits, help her financially while also continuing her legacy and spreading her message.
“So [early in 2016], I wrote a little note asking if people would be interested in collaborating on an album, gathered up a song list and sent it out to her friends, mentors, acts she’s toured with and people in the movement. I heard back immediately from people who wanted to be a part of this, and things went into full motion very quickly.”
Berlin initially thought the project would take three months; it took more than nine to complete. Her brother, Dan Berlin, also worked on the project and provided the ever-important financial support. Aside from Yarrow, the record offers covers by artists like Berlin, Dan Bern, John Elliott, and Evan Greer, performing with Pittsburgh’s own Anti-Flag. The digital album is available now for $16 on Bandcamp (annefeeney.bandcamp.com/releases). The CD, which ships in February and includes the art work and liner notes as well as a downloadable version of the record, is $20. Feeney will hold a CD-release party at the Wallace Tap Room, in East Liberty’s Hotel Indigo, on Feb. 2.
Berlin says she is thrilled with the reception her mother gave the CD and hopes that at the end of the day, it will fully serve its double purpose as a fundraiser and a well-deserved tribute. So far, the project has raised a few thousand dollars on preorders; she hopes that once word spreads, the CD’s demand will continue to increase.
“It’s so hard to be a musician when your health is declining,” Berlin says. “My mother has used her music to educate and unite people. Very few of us can say that we’ve had that kind of impact on the world. What she does is incredibly important and a dying art. I really want this to get to as many ears as possible.”
For her part, Feeney is humbled by the work of all the artists and especially her daughter.
“It says so much about a daughter’s love. It takes so much talent to put something like this together,” says Feeney. “She also had the wherewithal to contact these people, ask them to pick a song, pay for recording it themselves and send it back. They also donated the master recordings to me. I get overwhelmed thinking about it to the point I want to cry, because it’s so beautiful what my friends got together to do for me.”