Building working class culture one song at a time

Interview with Anne Feeney by Jeff Ditz

Your upcoming show with Chris Chandler is our last chance to see the two of you performing together as the Flying Poetry Circus.

Yeah, it’s our last tour together. It’s been an amazing four years – a truly wonderful four years. I think now we both need to try something fresh and new. Considering that I originally signed on for a two-week tour of the Northwest, it’s pretty amazing that it turned into a four year chunk of my life.

Chris started out as a solo. I met him back then in 1988 and he blew me away with his completely original style. His first performing partner was his former wife Amanda Stark – Stark Raving Chandler – and since then he has worked with an amazing string of people.

Chris has a collection of poems he’s written, some himself and some with Phil Rockstroh. He said this would be a 50/50 act, but I thought what he really needed was someone who would just back him up and let him shine. But he proved me wrong, and I’ve really enjoyed being an equal partner in the show. But it’s been an intense, creative process. If Chris were here he’d tell you he was lucky that I have such a large repertoire of songs that I know. We’ve been through pretty much my entire repertoire. At this point in our partnership we’ve got the timing and the magic that it takes, well, four years to develop. It’s a great show.

Describe what you and Chris do weaving poetry and songs together.

The poem makes a point and then the music becomes a comment on the poem and that ups the ante for the poem when it comes back. The song allows you to see the poem in a new light, then the new job of the poem is to respond to the music; each nuancing the other until it all reaches its oh-so exciting conclusion and brings the audience to its feet... sometimes screaming, sometimes sobbing (Feeney is chuckling).

You have a great song about Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

I wrote that with Bob Tibbs from St. Louis. Bob was a great guy, he died of leukemia a few years ago. He built the IWW branch in St Louis and was an OCAW member and contract negotiator for the utility workers. I went to see him in the hospital and it was probably his worst day ever with chemotherapy, but he manages to get all excited, telling me about this news story I missed while I was out of the country. Ron Brown’s plane had gone down in Tuzla and Bob tells me, "So Wolf Blitzer comes on CNN and says they haven’t identified the other victims of the plane crash – all that they know is that they were CEOs." Bob has all these great lines, he’s changing the song "Deportees." We had tears streaming down our faces writing that song.

Bob was a great negotiator. Once during tense negotiations both sides had agreed to a media blackout. As the sessions drag on management confronts him saying, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about – your members would accept this." They demand to meet with the full negotiating committee. Bob goes down to the Light of Life mission and rounds up ten guys and says ‘look, I’ll buy you sandwiches, you just come to this meeting and agree with everything I say.’ Tibbs started thinking a strike was inevitable. He knew the company was withholding information, plus there’s this media blackout. So, as he’s leaving negotiations that night he approaches the media people holding his hat over his heart and says he feels terrible asking for a raise at a time like this – that the workers had no idea that the company was in such financial trouble. The story was a sensation.

The next day the managers had to hold a press conference to reassure the investors that the company wasn’t in financial trouble. There were record dividends forthcoming. The workers got their raise.

You sing Solidarity Forever different than most singers. Everyone else does it like a funeral song but you do it rocking and upbeat. How’d that come about?

I learned that arrangement at the Great Labor Arts Exchange from a wonderful letter carrier from the Bay Area – Dave Welsh. The GLAE has really grown since they started doing the Conference on Creative Organizing at the same time. Now about 200 people attend. In addition to the original rank and file guitar-playing picket line singers there are now poets, playwrights, cartoonists, painters, sculptors, puppetistas, videographers and dozens of front-line organizers looking for ways to utilize labor culture in their campaigns.

Like a lot of people in the movement I started out really serious. I liked the music but I thought it was something "extra." Then the more I thought about it I realized that the music was what brought me in and kept me there. The corporations know the power of music, they all have little jingles that people can hum even if they don’t want to. The songs get in our heads. Music is part of how you create a culture, but the cultural message of the corporations is anything but solidarity. Their message is "we’re all in this alone." No matter how effectively an organizer communicates with workers, the minute the organizer leaves those workers are immersed back into a corporate culture that undermines everything the organizer has just communicated. That’s why we’ve got to build a culture, one song at a time, by word of mouth.

People hear the truth in a song and get so excited. The power of people singing together – it’s the hokey-pokey – what it’s all about. Music can make a room full of strangers into friends. Music is an intimate and powerful form of communication, like sex, but a good song lasts longer.

What do you see positive as you travel around within the union movement?

There are tens of thousands of wonderful people in every union in every part of the country. It’s the people that are the positive thing.

The handful of creative unions there are have to struggle with a corporate power that is so strong that when something good is made to happen it’s nothing short of a miracle. I wrote "Have You Been to Jail for Justice" for a reason. I think we’re not going to get anywhere without massive civil disobedience and general strikes.

Pittston inspired me. The courts said, "If you don’t get those members back to work the union will get fined and the fines will double every day." The fines piled up exponentially, enough to rival the national debt – certainly enough to bankrupt the union. Trumka took that gamble and allowed those draconian fines to accumulate. None other than Antonin Scalia overturned those fines in the end – even corporate bastards know they can’t win that way – the public wouldn’t stand for it.

The American public’s imagination really got caught up in the UPS strike and Ron Carey was a really dynamic leader during that time. He was talking so well about how we should not have so many casual workers, people shouldn’t have to work without benefits. And people got it. But what a letdown that was – the Carey debacle. I have a lot of Teamster friends whom I convinced to vote for Carey and they felt very betrayed.

I wonder what would happen if the AFL-CIO just ditched the Democratic Party. We don’t need much more proof they’re dead in the water than this last election. We put so much time and money into electoral politics and get what for it? Politics is frustrating enough without having to go out and canvas for some one as depressing as John Kerry.

We have to harken back to Harry Bridges. People are more decent than the red states blue states map suggests. The rank and file really is a beautiful thing.

We’re educators and most people will do what is right if they know the truth. Most people don’t want to profit off slave labor. You know they talk about the developed world and the underdeveloped world but Burma – Myanmar – that’s the perfectly developed capitalist country. It’s perfect: the workers there are slaves and they show up for work every day, corporations can shoot them if they want, don’t have to pay benefits, there are no standards for the environment or safety or anything.

The only thing that really develops countries – in the ways that matter to us – are unions.

When you’re talking about standards of living, public education, health care, those things only develop with unions. Capitalism doesn’t give us any of that.

What do you think about coming to Detroit?

In Detroit all the evils of capitalism are right there in front of your eyes. You think of all the people that labored there and built the auto industry and the billions and billions that were extracted from that labor. Detroit really shows the ruthlessness of capitalism – you drive out Jefferson and it’s block after block of blight adjacent to incredible concentrations of wealth. Pittsburgh is a lot like that too. And for me, as always, there are a lot of great people; I love the Diego Rivera murals and the Middle Eastern food in Dearborn.