February 8, 2021
Pearl River I didn’t know Anne Fenney, but I stayed in her house. I’m not sure how that counts in degrees of separation, but I would mark it as pretty close. Fenney was a folk singer, political activist, union leader, and friend to ACORN and its organizers in Pittsburgh forever. She passed away at 69 recently.
This was a couple of years ago after real estate implosion when we launched the ACORN Home Savers Campaign. We were hitting the doors in Pittsburgh to talk to people who had been boondoggled into buying contract-for-deed or lease-purchase-option homes acquired under sketchy circumstances by desperate families. We needed a place to stay, and her generosity allowed Craig Robbins, Mike Gallagher, Charles Koppelman and me to shelter. Dine’ Butler was in and out with us as well, as part of our volunteer army trying to understand this market and its victims. Others were in and out as well while we were there. Fenney was in Sweden at the time.
Maryellen Hayden Deckard, a former ACORN organizer, made this happen. She credited Fenney with moving her into fulltime organizing work when Feeney brought her own board after she had become the first woman to lead the Musicians’ Union local in Pittsburgh. When Maryellen let her know what we were up to in Pittsburgh, without hesitation she had allowed us to squat in her house while we were there. I didn’t know much about her work until we were there and of course signs of it were everywhere. We were honored by her generosity.
We weren’t the only ones. I am part of a listserv for union labor educators, and it has been blowing up with tributes and thanks for Feeney’s work and contribution at numerous conferences, along with regrets that they were never able to find employment for great skills, despite her legal degree and the power of her cultural contribution.
Some of her songs, many written decades ago, continue to resonate. One from 2005, called “We Just Come to Work Here,” speaks loudly to our current pandemic when she sings,
Now, while you’re up there talking in an air-conditioned office
On a telephone that’s OSHA-approved,
Go on and tell me how much you’ve been spending on safety,
Pardon me – I’m not moved.
There’s only one way to put an end to the slaughter, Just look your boss right in the eye,
And say: «We just come to work here – We don’t come to die »
In our current time of gross inequality, another song she had adapted from a traditional labor song was one where you could add endless verses like the civil right standard, “I’m Going to Lay Down My Shuffling Shoes.” It was entitled “The Rich Man’s House” which she recorded in 2000, and it went like this,
Well I went down to the rich man’s house and I took back
What he stole from me
Took it back
Took back my dignity
Took it back
Took back my humanity
Other verses include landlord’s house, welfare office, and the governor. You could make up your own, as you sang along.
Perhaps one of Fenney’s most well-known and earliest standards from 1969 when she was just getting into the fight was “Have You Been to Jail for Justice.”
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
Have you been to jail for justice? I want to shake your hand
Cause sitting in and lyin’ down are ways to take a stand
Have you sung a song for freedom? or marched that picket line?
Have you been to jail for justice? Then you’re a friend of mine
You law abiding citizens, come listen to this song
Laws were made by people, and people can be wrong
Once unions were against the law, but slavery was fine
Women were denied the vote and children worked the mine
The more you study history the less you can deny it
A rotten law stays on the books til folks like us defy it
The law’s supposed to serve us, and so are the police
And when the system fails, it’s up to us to speak our peace
It takes eternal vigilance for justice to prevail
So get courage from your convictions
Let them haul you off to jail!
Anne Fenney may have passed away, but these are the kinds of songs that power movements, and they will always be timely.