By Greg Godels

September 1, 2023

The swirling controversies around, fervent championing of, self-righteous denouncing of, and endless interpreting over Oliver Anthony’s song, Rich Men to the North of Richmond, is confounding in many ways, perfectly understandable in other ways.

Self-released Rich Men debuted at number one on three Billboard charts and received 17.5 million downloads the week of August 26.

The viral video qualifies as a phenomenon, perhaps more reflective of our country’s many social and political contradictions than of our musical tastes.

Because the video attacks the “rich men to the north of Richmond ”– a reference remotely reminiscent of Trump’s “swamp” — the faux-populists of the right were quick to embrace the video and call Anthony one of their own. Despite the fact that Anthony came from coastal Virginia, right-wing ideologues caricatured Anthony as a representative of white, backward Appalachia, resentful of a world changing at the region’s expense. More in the imagination of these crude political opportunists than any connection to reality, they saw a replay of J.D. Vance’s execrable Hillbilly Elegy and its equally exploitative subsequent film that launched the career of a Republican political wannabe with his hoary boot-strap story.

But Anthony will have none of that.

He has politely, but clearly dissociated himself from right-wing political exploitation: “I’m disappointed to see… it’s aggravating to see people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them… it was funny seeing my song… it was funny seeing it at the presidential debate because it was like I wrote that song about those people you know so for them to have to sit there and listen to that… that cracks me up.”

Of course, exploiting popular music for political gain is nothing new. The embracing of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA by both parties easily comes to mind. And the corporate world brazenly exploits the work of radical performers from Woody Guthrie to Nina Simone to The Clash.

Most of the political left was just as quick to denounce Anthony’s song as an anthem of the wild-eyed right. Still suffering from “deplorables” syndrome made famous by Hillary Clinton’s kiss-off of Middle America, liberals and those shilling for the Democrats ignored Anthony’s anger and desperation, suspicious of its country genre and his cultural mien.

The left identitarians, the word police, and the guardians of progressive etiquette recoiled from a couple of references in his lyrics to abusing children, welfare cheating, and high taxes, themes high on right-wing lists of grievances. The “gotcha” left was quick to announce that “we know what you really mean.”

In an era where most Democrats and those in their orbit only have “Denounce Trump!” in their bag of tricks, it is understandable that they cannot find an ally in Oliver Anthony.

This left is deaf to the class markers dominating the song– the ‘them’ versus ‘us’– that runs through all left popular art from Berthold Brecht through Boots Riley. This left misses the bitterness toward a ruling class that one also hears in Nina Simone’s version of Brecht’s Pirate Jenny or the sense of growing crisis and decline with Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics to Winter in America.

It’s there in Rich Men. It may be raw, superficially informed, even uninformed, but it’s there.

Billy Bragg, the old Red Wedge troubadour, has chosen to speak out on the Rich Men phenomenon in the UK’s The Guardian. I had the great pleasure of interviewing him twice for the Communist Party’s Daily World many years ago. Bragg’s class chip-on-the-shoulder, friendliness toward the socialist countries, and enthusiasm for a somewhat robust socialism fed my own illusions that music is or, at least, could be revolutionary. As a veteran of Woodstock, I wanted to believe that radical music could be a spur or energizer of social change. Call me a Dave Marsh-like Pollyanna in my callow youth.

I’ve since been dispelled of that illusion.

Since those happy times, Bragg has become something of an aging Labourite, still showing good instincts to resist when Labour takes another step rightward.

But his instincts betray him when he discusses US politics. He interprets the rich-man theme of Anthony’s lyrics, thusly: “I had in my mind corporate America, the tech bro billionaires whose companies monitor their workers all the way to the bathroom and back.” Anthony had in mind, in fact, the politicians in Washington, DC. For better or worse, most of our citizens may harbor class resentments, but direct their anger at the political strata occupied by representatives of both parties.

Bragg justifiably regrets the references to welfare and taxes– concepts most commonly raised by the con artists of the right. Regrettable they may be, but anyone attuned to the level of political discourse in the US might see these sins as forgivable when committed by an apolitical neophyte.

Bragg seems to forget the sins of his own– and my own– political hero, Woody Guthrie. The great Communist songster was hardly born a saint. As recounted by a biographer, Will Kaufman, Woody’s early songbook of performances on radio station KFVD were filled with vulgar, racist depictions, language, and stereotypes. A listener wrote him: “I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person or persons of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today.”

According to Kaufman, “Guthrie apologized profusely, dramatically ripped the offending song sheet to shreds before the microphone, and swore that he would never use the word again.”

An “Okie,” like today’s Middle American “deplorables,” Guthrie brought lots of ignorance with him. As a musical spokesperson for the US’s working people, it must have been a painful memory that his father became district court clerk in rural Oklahoma because of a Democratic Party racist maneuver; that his father hated socialists; that his father allegedly belonged to the KKK. Yes, Guthrie had a lot of baggage.

This same ignorant Okie, years later, outraged at indignities imposed on Black fellow musicians screamed at the perpetrators and tore up a public dining room, according to Pete Seeger.

Unfortunately, Bragg can’t bring Woody Guthrie’s evolution from a “backward Okie” to bear on his judgment of Oliver Anthony. While Anthony’s first efforts are certainly no match for Guthrie’s mature body of work, surely it is unfair to dismiss Anthony before he has a chance to develop and grow.

The thirties were certainly different from our times. The left accepted a rough, clumsy, plain-speaking, protesting voice of the plight of working people and embraced, nourished, and encouraged him until he grew into a great popular spokesperson for radical causes.

Today, a similar unpolished, plaintive voice, speaking emotionally of the disdain of elites, is questioned by the sectarian guardians of left purity and dismissed as a shill for the political right.

In one of his more sardonic songs, Guthrie imagined that if Jesus Christ lived in his time, preaching social justice “like he preached in Galilee, they would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.”

If the Woody Guthrie of the 1930s were alive today, would our Puritan self-righteous left disown him?

We’ve come a long way, but in the wrong direction.