A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
A Discussion with Anne Feeney & Utah Phillips
Beloved Pittsburgh musician, activist and “recovering lawyer” Anne Feeney died on February 3 of illness diagnosed as Covid-related pneumonia. Obituaries in The New York Times and Rolling Stone along with Pittsburgh media recapped some of the highlights of her eventful life. Originally published in the Winter 2001 issue of HEArt, a Pittsburgh activist-literary journal, this rare interview of Anne — in conversation with her friend, western folk performer Bruce “Utah” Phillips — captures some of the thinking that gave force to her voice, which over 50 years was an animating presence at marches, rallies and picket lines in 40 states and a few foreign countries.
Folk songs, working-class history and anarchist hell-raising — that more or less sums up the cultural territory laid out by Bruce “Utah” Phillips. “Once I shared a meal with a couple cowboys,” he says, in a typical story-launching anecdote, “and listened to them debate the proper Latin translation of Death before Employment.” Keep listening — his amiable wit makes it hard not to — and you’ll absorb some of the largely unwritten radical history of the United States.
Phillips’ two recordings with Ani DiFranco, “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” (1996) and “Fellow Workers” (1999), are an archive of this rich lore. The first gained wide attention and radio play, and the second won a Grammy nomination. “There’s nothing on that record newer than 1915, and it’s in the contemporary folk category,” says Phillips, noting the irony of the recording industry’s willingness to reward his “man-sized charge on capitalism.”
As a living link to the Wobblies (International Workers of the World) and American anarchism, Phillips can explain the continuity between Joe Hill and the Berkeley free-speech movement or between 1930s Ford Motors sit-down strikes and Rosa Parks. He can, for instance, tell you — as he told me in this telephone conversation — that the first person to sing the labor song “Pie in the Sky” was Haywire Mack, branch secretary of the Wobblies in Spokane in 1910.
After serving in the Korean War, Phillips tramped the country with his guitar, turning his anger at war and the U.S. government into a personal odyssey. He worked, talked, sang and wrote songs and became one of our finest artists in the populist tradition of Woody Guthrie, a poet of union halls and flophouses, hobo campfires, boxcars and train whistles. His recordings from the 60s and 70s are collectors items. Nowadays, a white-haired cultural elder with travel limited by health, Phillips holds forth from his home in Nevada City, California, in the Sierra Mountains, where his weekly radio show, “Loafer’s Glory, The Hobo Jungle of the Mind,” reaches many public-radio stations. (Still available: http://www.thelongmemory.com)
“The best labor singer that’s going in the United States,” is what Phillips says about Pittsburgh singer-songwriter Anne Feeney. Since her 1969 activist baptism as an undergrad singing “Cops of the World” at a University of Pittsburgh moratorium against the war, Feeney has sung at peace marches, rallies and picket lines in 40 states and several foreign countries. “I’m a traveling hellraiser,” she says. “My job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Which side are you on?”
Activism, working-class politics and music are encoded in Feeney’s DNA. Her Irish grandfather was a fiddle-playing coal-miner who organized for the UMW throughout southwest Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River Valley. “My dad talked about John L. Lewis the way other people talk about the pope,” says Feeney. One of her most vivid childhood memories is her father’s angry curse at Eisenhower: “He thinks poor people are poor because they’re too stupid to be rich.”
Irish traditional songs and union songs were part of the household and both contribute to Feeney’s repertoire, hundreds of songs she can pull down at a moment’s notice from memory. She’s won national awards for her songwriting and recorded six albums, the latest, “Heartland,” a live recording from her mid-90s work at the A. E. Staley lockout in Decatur, Illinois. A seventh album, in progress, will feature one of her newest and most rousing songs of struggle, “Have You Been to Jail for Justice,” a standard of Peter, Paul and Mary concerts since they debuted it at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall in 1999.
Feeney performed with Phillips, who limits himself to a performance a month, several times during the last couple years, including an October 1999 Pittsburgh concert, which in a roundabout way led to this interview. The next month, a rainy November weekend in Seattle, she sang for thousands of activists at the World Trade Organization protest. This landmark event was still on her mind Feb. 7, 2000 when, from her home in the Swissvale neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I dialed Phillips.
MS: Let me start off by asking how you think folk music as an art form intersects with activism.
UTAH: I think music that’s concerned with social action — political music, protest music, whatever you call it — has been around forever. I think they had protest songs during the middle kingdom in Egypt when they went on strike from building pyramids.
As far as songs that are written down, you can go to the British broadsides. Since there were no public newspapers, the penny-sheet broadsides that kids sold running from block-to-block very often contained spontaneously created seditious ballads. One of the most famous came from when Queen Elizabeth I was unmarried and parliament feared there wouldn’t be an heir to the throne. So they wanted to marry her off to a French duke. When the news hit the street, the satirical ballad popped up on the broadsheets with the Duke, who was French, as a frog, and the queen as Miss Mousey. And that’s what kids sing today as “the froggy would a wooing go.” The guy who wrote it was drawn and quartered or hung up over the gates of London for sedition. A rather extreme example.
In the case of the American labor movement, the songs come from the waves of immigrants at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution after the Civil War. The immigrants arrived, and a national labor movement began to develop out of the railroad strikes of 1877 — that’s when Pittsburgh was under martial law.*
ANNE: That’s right!
UTAH: The music that came out of that is from tune models that people brought with them, or with which they were familiar — like church music. But the intention, with people who on the same work site sometimes spoke a dozen different languages, was to take complex political ideas and boil them down to simple language that everybody can understand.
See. Everybody could get it. You have a rally, you’re going to have some speakers there. Might be a sympathetic minister. Could be a politician. There’s going to be a lot of people in that crowd who can’t understand most of what’s being said. So your union singer, getting people singing together, is going to bring it down to one or two very strong, very simple ideas.
That for me is the purpose, and the way I’ve seen it work, again and again. I think that old-time labor music is very simple. Written by the working-class for the working-class. It’s not awfully good poetry.
Songs of social protest later on, up into our times, have become much better poetry. Much better songs. But also a good bit more complex, difficult to understand. I think that — OK, the difference between Bob Dylan and John Brill, who wrote “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back” — the difference between them is the difference between “How many miles must a white dove sail before it sleeps in the sand?” and “Dump the bosses off your back.” See what I mean?
MS: So there’s some tradeoff and maybe some differences in the way a songwriter thinks of their audience. Maybe Bob Dylan’s audience is college kids and academics . . .
UTAH: I think that during the folk revival, yeah, that got to be really true. It never really penetrated. The folk revival never penetrated the labor movement very deeply at all.
You know that’s one of the reasons that I admire Anne’s music so much. She’s off of that true vine. She does write some linguistically ingenious songs, but she has a knack for hitting a refrain that everybody can deal with, that everybody can sing. She uses a good deal more restraint in the direction of simplicity than most of the writers I know.
MS: We know that well in Pittsburgh.
ANNE: I think the working-class is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be too, and we don’t necessarily have 12 different languages being represented at the work site, the way we used to. And there are more writers working in different languages too. You can get away with singing a Spanish song in an Anglo workplace. You can be more sophisticated in your ideas. But still I think any good song ought to be understandable. I’ve never been a fan of the mystical.
Think about poor Phil Ochs. The few times that he stretched to be ambiguous and let the reader draw in whatever they wanted from the meaning . . . he had “The Power and the Glory” being sung at the Republican primary in New Hampshire.
My God. The worst was Theodore Bikel singing “What’s that I hear, the sound of freedom calling?” at Solidarity Day, and the AFL-CIO used the backdrop of the collapse of communism and the triumph of capitalism as the visual behind “That’s the sound of freedom calling.”
ANNE: So I think it’s much better to incorporate phrases like “corporate bastards” into every song, to make sure this can never happen to you.
UTAH: That’s right. One thing that should be thrown into this is that the working-class has been responsible for an enormous amount of poetry, an enormous amount of song. One of the reasons being — talking about the immigrant working-class — is pre-literacy. There were tradeoffs with literacy, reading and writing, that we never paid much attention to. But a completely oral culture creates abundant oral literature, in story and song and in poem.
When that wellspring dries up, as part of the impact of literacy, you create a situation where you have a performer and an audience that consumes what the performer creates. And you aren’t a participant in the creative process as a group process. That’s a major cultural shift.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to participate in a culture where there was no reading or writing. What would the thought processes be like? Well, you can’t think your way back into that. I tried with a hypnotist. I said can you erase my ability to read and write, or suspend it temporarily? You know what it felt like? I felt like I was a three-year-old. It regressed me back to when I couldn’t read or write. Terrific.
But I’m really curious about that because I think the culture that created our early labor music, in the last quarter of the 1800s, came out of that pre-literate culture and has that stand. It’s really quite different than what we do today.
MS: One of the ways I’m associating to what you say, Utah, is your performance style. You sit down on a chair, take off your hat and start talking, which is a marked contrast from the model you’re referring to — which we’ve had as a result, to some extent I guess, of corporatization of culture — of the star performer who declaims in some sense to an audience of rapt cultural consumers.
UTAH: What I’m trying to do — it was unconscious for years, and now it’s conscious — is to create a world made up of listeners and speakers. As much as possible. I love books, but boy I keep them in their place. I want to live in a world made of speakers and listeners.
I got rid of e-mail. I can’t stand to plow through that snowstorm. If somebody wants to talk to me, let ‘em bang on the door and we’ll talk. You’re right. I want as much as possible to sample that world made up of speakers and listeners.
MS: Another aspect of your “performance” — when I say performance in this context I feel like I have to put quotes around it — was the extent to which you strike me as an embodiment of oral history. You’ve listened so well to many people who you’ve come across in the paths of your lifetime, that have wonderful stories to tell.
UTAH: That’s an old way — saying what you hear. And because of the folk process, because of it being an oral tradition, it changes, it molts, it passes through the filter of your own intellect, the filter of your own emotions, and it always comes out a little different.
The people who tell those stories that I give them to will tell them a little differently. And it’ll all change. I love that idea.
I think that contributing songs — this is something that Anne is doing right now — because I think she’s the best labor singer in the country. I mean she’s a great singer, but in that aspect of what she does, the best labor singer that’s going in the United States. And she takes it every goddamn where that you can think of, and that is what she’s going to contribute.
She’s contributing to that hoard of songs that is passed along, that is sung. The best thing you can do — especially if you’re Unitarian and don’t think there’s a heaven — the only tombstone you’re going to have worth anything is that you created something that the people accepted, took into the body of themselves, because they found it useful and they found it true. And then passed it along and passed it on. Even though your name vanishes from it. I mean who wrote “Barbry Allen”? And that’s what Anne’s doing. She’s creating music that belongs in that tradition that I really want to be part of.
ANNE: There aren’t many people who I’d tolerate this kind of mush from.
UTAH: It’s going to last. It’s like Tommy Paxton said once. He said songwriters write grape juice, but grape juice can turn into wine or it can turn into vinegar. If the people take the song, and use it and put it to work in their lives, and change it and pass it along, it becomes wine. If not, vinegar. But it’s not the songwriter’s choice. It’s not up to you. It’s up to the people. They decide.
MS: Anne, you performed at Seattle. Can you say anything about the songs that arose out of being out there?
ANNE: Man, I wish I’d had a tape recorder. I started singing all new verses to other songs I’ve written, like “War on the Workers” and channeled a new set of “Marchin’ in the Streets” lyrics. (Sings to the tune of Martha and the Vandellas): We’ll be singin’, swayin’ while they’re pepper sprayin’, c’mon say you’ll be there . . . .
There was a very synergistic thing going on with the crowd. The energy of people looking around and seeing students, environmentalist, feminists, peace workers, people from all over the world, Africans and Asians and labor and educators and religious leaders, all of these people unified on stopping the WTO. The atmosphere was so electric.
And the things that started happening — people would sing and respond to. Well I sang a couple verses of Jon Fromer’s “Capitalism Sucks,” which I used to be a little hesitant to sing, in the early 80s when Jon wrote it. Labor was so patriotic. By Seattle, it’d become a staple of my repertoire, but that was the first time that line “capitalism sucks” not only got a thunderous cheer and round of applause that forced me to pause, but the audience really picked it up and 8,000 people started singing it back to me and waving their hands in the air. It’s a sea change in public attitude.
There was almost six hours of talking heads up at the stadium. And the numbing effect on people, who were really there to raise hell, of one speech after another was devastating. But the cultural stuff, the puppets, the theater, the music really brought that crowd to life and kept them moving. The best speech I heard all day was Steve Yokich about four hours into this marathon got up and said “Hey, I came here to shut down Seattle, not to talk. Let’s march.”
How do you like this for a chant: We’re here! We’re wet! Cancel the debt! And 200 kids with papier-mache dolphin heads walking along with their arms linked chanting “Dolphins are not trade barriers. (untranscribable dolphin-barking sound).”
MS: Utah, one of the things I really enjoyed about your performance was the story telling, dipping into the untold (or seldom told) radical history of this country. You talked about people and events I never heard of — and I think of myself as relatively well educated. It seems to me that you’re doing something really important in keeping these stories alive.
UTAH: . . . in a small way. I’ll be going down to high school in Davis, and they’re going to get all the history classes together. You know there’s a black history in this country, and young black people became aware that it wasn’t being taught. They were simply not getting their true history in the public schools. They were willing to go to the streets to fight for it. And the same with Native Americans. Who weren’t getting any of their true history. Or Chicanos. Or Asians.
ANNE: Or women!
UTAH: Damnit. Those people are willing to go to the wall to get their history taught in their schools. We have a rich, deep working-class history we all shared. It’s been just as viciously suppressed as anybody’s history. And yet there are white organizers that know more black history than they do their own history. And that’s a shame.
The reason of course we don’t get it is because the boss has turned the schools into trade schools. He says education equals employment, which is nonsense. All the boss wants from the school is people who don’t ask questions and have skills he can use. He doesn’t want music, doesn’t want poetry. That’s why the stuff’s not there.
That’s exactly why the working-class history isn’t there. That’s why kids graduate from high school and don’t know what a scab is and why not to be one. Well, that’s part of my job, you know. To get in there and say look, there’s this rich, deep passionate, exciting history. Yeah, you maybe get some jollies off the Alamo, which was — you know, big deal, the Alamo — the fight to keep slavery in Texas. But you’re not going to hear about Everett, or Centralia**, or the Homestead Strike.
ANNE: At the time I heard about the Berkeley Free Speech Movement I had no idea it was part of an ancient Wobbly tradition of free-speech fights that have been going on for decades.
UTAH: Yeah, sometimes those connections are a little bit hard to make. It’s kind of like . . . the connection I like to make is that the sit-downs, the sit-ins in the South during the Mississippi freedom summer, and the bus rides. That tactic comes out of Highlander School in Tennessee. That’s where Rosa Parks was the week before she got on that bus. Nobody knows about this, but Highlander was teaching that tradition from the Ford hunger march and from the sit-downs. The tactic actually goes back, occupying the workplace goes back to the mid-30s.
ANNE: I’ve been repeating your quote about how we learn the American history of the ruling class in school, and you leave school armed with someone else’s class background and no tools to understand or control your work-life thereafter. Boy do kids respond to that. I’ve been doing a lot of work in high schools.
UTAH: That’s the front-line work. It really is. Cause they’re the ones who are going to have to give the boss something to worry about it.
ANNE: One of my favorite quotes on this subject, and I think it’s Paul Robeson who said it, is that all art is political, and the decision not to be political is a political decision.
UTAH: I’ll add a quote to that. Roque Dalton, the martyred Salvadoran poet, said art to be truly revolutionary must first of all be good.
MS: I went to see Threepenny Opera here in Pittsburgh last night, so I’ll throw in Bertolt Brecht. He said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
ANNE: (joins in) hammer with which to shape it.
UTAH: Absolutely right. A hammer with which to shape it. Boy, he was raked over the coals for socialist realism. I remember when the president of Nicaragua after the revolution was asked what the policy was toward socialist realism. He said we have none. We only ask our poets to tell us the truth. Then it’s up to us to act upon it.
* The Railroad Strikes of 1877, a series of spontaneous and uncoordinated railway-worker strikes in a dozen cities, are the most violent U.S. uprising since the Civil War. In Pittsburgh, the state militia fired into a crowd, killing 20 people, triggering a week of anarchy; strikers and sympathizers destroyed thousands of freight cars and locomotives and burned the railroad depot and over 70 downtown buildings to the ground.
** Everett and Centralia are towns in Washington at which violent encounters occurred (1916 and 1919 respectively) between I.W.W. free-speech activists and their opponents. With 13 or more dead and at least 50 wounded, the Everett massacre was the bloodiest labor battle in Northwest history.
For more information, see The IWW History Project (https://depts.washington.edu/iww/) and Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.
Anne Feeney was a self-proclaimed “performer, producer, hell-raiser” who was also a lawyer, mother, past president of the Pittsburgh Musicians Union, and winner of the 1999 New Person award from the Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh. Her recorded albums include many original songs, two of which in 1989 won the best New Folk song competition at the annual Kerrville, Texas festival. Over the past 50 years, her live performances at over a thousand rallies, marches and picket lines in 40 states and several foreign countries have transmitted joy and forged solidarity in the struggle for social justice.
Bruce “Utah” Phillips, folk artist, archivist, historian, activist, philosopher and peerless story-teller was (and is) one of America’s under-recognized cultural treasures. His folk recordings are classics of the genre. With his two 1990s collaborations with singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” and “Fellow Workers,” he gained a new following among a younger generation interested in the history of American working-class struggle. He lived in Nevada City, California, from where his weekly radio show, “Loafer’s Glory, The Hobo Jungle of the Mind,” reached many public-radio stations.
A photo montage of Anne’s life over two songs: Union Maid and War on the Workers