One of the reasons we learn history, teachers tell us, is so that we’re not condemned to repeat it.
The songs on Anne Feeney’s new album, Dump the Bosses Off Your Back, seem to prove that we really don’t learn, because they fit equally into labor’s historical struggles and recent headlines. Feeney, inspired by her labor-organizing grandfather, has dedicated her life to political activism through her music and work. A former trial lawyer from Pittsburgh, she feels compelled to speak up for – and sing out to – the “working class.” Joined by friends such as Commander Cody, the Austin Lounge Lizards, and Pat Humphries, she shares seven of her own songs, three old Wobbly songs, and five covers of other people’s work, some with her additional lyrics.
The mix is an intriguingly serious, cynical, and sincere CD occasionally delivered with humor but more often in straight-ahead indignation and anger. Feeney’s voice is sometimes quiet and beautiful; more often, it’s raspy with intensity.
The title song, written in 1916, begins like a hymn but quickly turns to what Feeney calls “danceable thrash polka.” The song urges workers to rise up against poverty, updated with references to crack, Iraq, looted pension funds, and the like. Joe Hill’s 1911 “Preacher and the Slave,” with Cody (George Frayne) on piano and duet vocals, becomes a boogie piece claiming, “You will eat by and by in the glorious land above the sky / Work and pray, live on hay / You get pie in the sky when you die.”
Four of the songs – including two of her own – were written for Jerry Starr’s stage play Buried: The Story of the Sago Mine Disaster. Feeney also sings about: collective bargaining rights, the murder of a farm labor leader, and the takeover of Christmas by corporate interests. “How Long” is a slow, brooding, gospel-sounding song based on a 1965 speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” written by Colum Sands in 1983, urges listeners, tongue in cheek, to say nothing “when you speak about you know what / For if you know who should hear you, you know what you’ll get / They’ll send you off to you know where for who could say how long.”
If the words in Dump The Bosses Off Your Back sound like they come from a time machine, well, perhaps it’s just history repeating itself. — Tom Geddie