The current focus of the U.S.’s never-ending culture war comes in the form of the song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” by Oliver Anthony, aka Christopher Anthony Lunsford, a former factory worker, who has been open about his battles with alcoholism and depression. Riding a wave of viral attention, “Rich Men” has now spent two weeks at the number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts. The song has a firm musical resonance — done in the high lonesome style that is the hallmark of bluegrass — and is an accomplished and honest work. It is also, sad to say, a problematic attempt to address a complicated, even impossible, situation.
Anthony’s song comes on the heels of Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” — a posturing and less sincere work, extolling the “superiority” of outer-urban U.S. Unlike Aldean, however, “Rich Men” has a more populist appeal, railing against the powerful wanting to control everything, having to work for bullshit pay and wishing politicians would look out for miners instead of supporting people like Jeffrey Epstein and the politicians who courted him. The song also ignorantly attacks people receiving welfare — most of whom are children, the elderly or disabled — and victims of obesity (rather than the poisonous, yet profitable, diet Americans are fed).
Anthony is not, as Phil Ochs counseled artists to be, “a few steps ahead” of his time. Rather, he is steeped in the moment and at times, intentionally or not, assumes a reactionary stance. This is evident in the song’s title. Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederacy. As such, it is not the best geographic marker for the divide between good and evil.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan recently joked that he comes from the Rust Belt — specifically Elgin, Indiana, a city 800-odd miles north of Richmond. The Rust Belt, he said, is “a cute catchy term to describe areas of economic devastation.” This gets at something about Anthony’s song which has been given less attention than it merits, how deindustrialization has transformed the entire country’s landscape. Take, for example, the miners Anthony says politicians ought to be looking out for. In 1923, there were over 800,000 coal miners in the U.S., but today there are little more than 55,000 — automation and technology eliminated the need for any more. To think that situation could be reversed — even if it were not environmentally suicidal — is an illusion of the first order. One could follow that example out to a multitude of industries, from steel, to auto, to rubber, and the only reasonable conclusion is that we are headed deeper into, not diverging away from, a post-industrial U.S. The days of jobs where someone with nothing more than a high school diploma could reach a middle-class life are long gone.
As such — and despite the best intentions of artists like Billy Bragg, who penned a response to Oliver’s song suggesting the answer is to “join a union” — for the millions of people without the years of training needed to fit them profitably into the contemporary economy, there is no need for them — and even for people with such skills, AI looms. For most of them, there is no union to join. That is the chilling reality undergirding Anthony’s song — and why it has resonated with so many.
Music and Populism
The organized right has tried to claim this song as its own because it appeals to people — including many who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump — who are disaffected and as such could potentially, and against their own interests, support the Republican Party. That’s why Ron DeSantis, when asked during the recent Republican presidential debate why he thought the song was striking such a nerve, responded, “Our country is in decline. The decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice.” He went on to say the answer is to vote Joe Biden out of office. The irony here is that DeSantis, and Trump (a rich man both north and south of Richmond), to a degree, are correct in pointing out the U.S.’s decline — by any measure, the country has traveled a good distance away from its unchallenged hegemony in the immediate aftermath of World War II. However, their rationale for why that is the case, and their remedies — cut taxes for the rich, raid Social Security and Medicare, further criminalize immigration, subjugate women, energize white supremacists, attack LGBTQ people, eliminate the teaching of Black history, push the country closer to a religious theocracy — are a million miles away from addressing the actual problems people are confronting. In truth, these demagogues are mainly out to bolster themselves and the rich and powerful men (and women) who benefit from Republican political control — and they will do nearly anything to achieve that.
Unfortunately for Anthony, he has waded into waters deeper than any artist would want to find themselves in. In an interview a few days after DeSantis’s remarks he tried to distance himself from those trying to appropriate or disparage him. As he told the press, he actually wrote the song “about those people,” and complained, “I see the right trying to characterize me as one of their own and I see the left trying to discredit me.” Bruce Springsteen faced a similar conundrum when Ronald Reagan tried to appropriate “Born in the USA” — a broadside against the ravages of the Vietnam War and a deindustrializing U.S. — as an anthem for his 1984 Morning in America campaign. In response, Springsteen told Rolling Stone, “It’s not morning in Pittsburgh. It’s not morning above 125th Street in New York. It’s midnight, and … there’s a bad moon risin’.” Populism, whether left- or right-inclined, is a slippery slope because it does not operate outside or above the dominant power relations; as such it is open, desired or not, to all manner of co-option.
Here it is worth talking about another song steeped in controversy. In the winter of 1940, Woody Guthrie made his way from California to New York City, hitchhiking through the bitterness and cold of the Depression-era landscape. Along the way, he frequently encountered Kate Smith’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” As he listened, he became increasingly incensed by the song’s jingoism and disregard for those suffering in the country. When he finally got to New York, ensconced in actor Will Geer’s apartment, he wrote the lyrics to what would become “This Land Is Your Land.” While that song, too, is a subject of controversy — is it a thinly veiled wink to communism, an anthem of “the real America,” or an insult to Indigenous people? — it is a controversy of a different order. What sets “This Land” apart from “Richmond,” is that, rather than emerging out of confusion and despair, it was a result of Guthrie’s socialist inclinations — he was a strong supporter of the Communist Party. As such Guthrie’s populism did not wallow in grievance but instead sought to see beyond signs of “private property” to a land whose bounty was held in common.
“This Land Is Your Land,” however, was written at a moment when the United States — for better or worse — was on the rise as a geopolitical and industrial power. At the same time the Soviet Union, which for some seemed to be an alternative, inspired artists like Woody Guthrie to envision a better world. That world, however, is a place that is now far in the past. Guthrie, too, is now long gone. Instead, we find ourselves in a world of trouble, with no easy answers. To the degree it hits the mark, “Rich Men North of Richmond” embodies that conundrum. That said, better songs are needed.
A note of thanks to Irka Mateo for her assistance with this piece.
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