FolkWorld #81 11/2023
© David Rovics

Across the Western Ocean

Why I Love "Rich Men North of Richmond" (After Slightly Revising the Lyrics)

Piggott, Songs That Made History

I've heard from so many people asking for my response to the song "Rich Men North of Richmond" that I had to listen to it, learn it, make a couple minor edits to it, cover it, and write an essay about it.

Oliver Anthony

Artist Video

This song by a young man going by the stage name Oliver Anthony has taken the world by storm over the past couple weeks, within country music circles, but also much more broadly than that, with tens of millions of views in a matter of days. I assume it was helped along with the view count by some prominent people with huge followings, as these things usually work when something goes viral, but there's no question that this song has gone viral, either way.

I finally got around to listening to it in full this morning, and was immediately blown away with the simplicity and power of the song. In my first listen, I didn't hear anything I didn't like, but there were a couple lines I didn't really get the first time. After some folks pointed out certain lines in the song they found troubling, I thought, yes, but overall the song is so good. What would it take to improve those couple of lines -- the ones that punch down -- so they punch up instead?

It didn't take much. I changed one word in one line, one word in another line, and reworked one line more fully. That was it.

So many people have been writing me for the past week or so and asking me what I think of the song, I'm embarrassed it took me this long to listen to it (I've had other things on my mind, like being shadowbanned by Bandcamp). Mainly what people have been doing, rather than writing me, is tagging me when they respond to something related to this song, so they can share with other folks the names of leftwing songwriters who write similar types of songs, but from a left perspective.

The song has been embraced by various pundits and politicians of the right. Which should amuse everyone to no end, to think that the billionaires and corporate grifters that lead the Republican Party actually give a shit about working class people from Appalachia like this songwriter, or the people he's singing about.

It has also been largely condemned by various elements of the left and especially by liberals, for committing every offense it's possible for a song to commit. Others on the left are more sympathetic with where the song is coming from, but largely critical. I'm not sure how many other left-identified people there are out there like me, who think the song is brilliant, aside from a couple of lines that are easily improved upon.

Before I go further, in case you haven't heard it, here's my slightly revised version of the song.

I can't imagine what it must be like to be Oliver Anthony right now, living a humble life in small-town Virginia and suddenly having the biggest country hit on the charts. According to what he's written since the song blew up, he's gotten 50,000 emails. I don't know if that's an exaggeration or not, but either way, he's inundated, mostly with stories from people who identify with the suffering of the working class that his song captures so powerfully.

When Bob Dylan became a global superstar at the age of 18 I'm sure it was at least as challenging. And then to have intellectuals three times his age writing books analyzing every word of every one of his songs, mining them all for prophetic content, it's hard to imagine what that must have been like for the kid.

David Rovics

I'm not Oliver Anthony, but I can't even stomach reading any more of the stuff that self-proclaimed leftists and liberals are writing about him and this song. I do want to share my analysis of the song, though, specifically because everyone else is so thoroughly picking it apart in ways that are driving me nuts.

But before I do that, having heard nothing from this guy but this song and the few paragraphs he wrote about why he wrote it, I find myself overwhelmed with a desire to drop by this guy's place and shoot the shit with him, play some music together. I'm also overwhelmed with the desire to protect this young man who is being inundated with so much shit right now.

He's a high school dropout with a history of addiction and mental health issues, by his own self-description. He has probably never read Marx or Kropotkin, I'm guessing, but he probably has watched Fox News on at least a few hundred occasions. (It's impossible not to, especially doing certain jobs and living in certain parts of the country, I can tell you that.)

I may be wrong, but my guess is if I had a few days to talk with Oliver, he'd like my version of his lyrics better than his own. I'll bet those few punching-down lyrics in the song were more or less throwaways, that weren't getting to what he really wanted to address, which is the massively unjust reality of this country, which is plutocracy -- rule of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

I'll get into that theme a little more within the meat of the song. I'm going to go bit by bit, starting with the title.

The title (and chorus) has raised ire in some left/liberal circles for being a term -- "north of Richmond" -- that is somehow alluding to the Confederacy. This is ridiculous. As one who has traveled extensively throughout every one of the fifty states of this country, very much including every region of the state of Virginia, everyone in the region is aware of the extent of the DC suburbs, how far they go into northern Virginia, how gentrified and expensive they're becoming, how much they're changing in so many ways, including many very negative ways. "North of Richmond" is a geographical and political description for what is often called "inside the Beltway," and reading more into it than that is just nit-picking pseudo-intellectual idiocy. It's the kind of thinking I'd expect from some post-modernist PhD student from Eugene, and it's bullshit, as far as the real world goes.

Like any great songwriter, in one short, introductory verse, Oliver Anthony absolutely nails reality for so many people in the United States today, in four short lines:

    I've been sellin' my soul, workin' all day
    Overtime hours for bullshit pay
    So I can sit out here and waste my life away
    Drag back home and drown my troubles away

Low pay, long hours, self-medication with alcohol, and perhaps even something of a reference to how spread-out and isolated we've all become, with property prices so high that the only place left to go that's remotely affordable is far away from everybody else, if I read into the third line possibly more than I should.

We then have Anthony's long, soaring chorus. Here's the first two lines:

    It's a damn shame what the world's gotten to
    For people like me and people like you

David Rovics

From November 2-16 David Rovics will be visiting from Portland, Oregon (US) to do concerts in various parts of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Kamala Emanuel, from Brisbane, Australia, will be singing with him. In these terrible times, the emphasis on this tour, as on many past tours, will be war and peace. Both Kamala and David have long histories as advocates for the cause of peace and justice for Palestinians, and everyone else. Many of David's songs, essays on Counterpunch and Substack, podcasts, and interviews related to Palestine are collected at Details about each of the stops on the Ceasefire Tour in Scandinavia can be found at

Ceasefire Tour Roundup

"I've been on tour in Scandinavia from the first of November until last Friday. During the many hours spent in the car, my singing partner Kamala and I have been mostly listening to Al-Jazeera Audio, tuned in to the extremely professional Palestinian reporters talking stoically about their slain family members, friends, and colleagues, documenting Gaza's descent into apocalypse, famine and disease -- a land of rotting bodies beneath rubble too heavy to move without machines, which have no fuel, if they haven't also been destroyed by the bunker-busting missiles the US has just sent Israel in their thousands. [...]
Someone at the gig mentioned that Stella Assange was going to be in Oslo the following day to accept an award on behalf of her imprisoned husband, Julian Assange. I texted her and mentioned that we were playing a gig at Cafe Mir after the award ceremony, as it happened, and we ended up with an extra table full of wonderful folks, including Stella, Danish filmmaker Niels Ladefoged, and one of the main folks from PEN Norway which had voted to award this year's Ossietzky Prize to Julian.
It of course could not be more appropriate to see such folks in the course of what we've called our Ceasefire Tour. Julian has done more to expose war crimes and corruption in this world, particularly in the USA and with regards to the US military, than perhaps anyone alive today. This is, in fact, why he is in prison now, and why he is facing extradition to the United States, and a potential 175-year sentence there.
It was especially appropriate for the occasion, you could say, that it was specifically the Ossietzky Prize Julian was being given. Carl von Ossietzky was a journalist and pacifist who blew the whistle on Germany's secret rearming program, post World War 1. As with Julian exposing US war crimes, for exposing Germany's secret military program in the 1920's, Ossietzky was also severely punished, ultimately dying in a concentration camp in 1938. As with Julian, Ossietzky was also tortured. As with Julian, he was also given prominent awards while in prison. As with Julian, the government whose crimes he was exposing had many friends around the world, including in Norway, where there was much opposition to giving Ossietzky the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935. And as with the time when Ossietzky lived, Germany is once again supporting genocide, and once again providing all kinds of cover for a fascist regime that has an officially secret, massive stockpile of nuclear missiles. But this time, the genocidal regime is not being opposed by any of the powerful countries that defeated Nazi Germany by the end of World War 2. Rather, it is being actively defended by all of them, who are all profiting from the genocide by selling lots of high-tech weapons to the murderers.
The show at Cafe Mir was a double-bill with us and a band with members who currently reside in various far-flung parts of what is a very large country, especially from north to south. The band, Folk Flest, first formed in the early 1970's, and the songs they sang back then such as "Free Palestine" are sadly just as relevant today as they were then, if not more so.
We had already sung my song, "When Julian Met Stella," when Julian happened to call Stella from prison, during our set. We did the song again, so Julian could hear over the phone, and the audience clapped again afterwards as if they hadn't just heard the song a few minutes earlier already."

David Rovics

Artist Video David Rovics @ FROG

Given that the theme of the song (indicated by the title) is rule by the rich, it's pretty obvious here that what Anthony is probably referring to with the first line there is the increasing division between the rich and the poor. The second line is referring to the working class majority of this country.

It's easy to see how rightwing politicians could interpret these lines to suit their political purposes. What's been so discouraging for me is to see the numbers of people who identify as coming from the left who are taking liberties with interpreting these lines to somehow be complaining about people of color and women having more agency these days, and "people like me and people like you" somehow referencing white people, rather than the working class.

The chorus continues:

    Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
    But it is, oh, it is
    Livin' in the new world
    With an old soul

Here we can be sure there are leftists interpreting these beautiful, simple lines to be a reference to the Civil War.

Let me just stop there for a moment. When you read these lines, did they make you think about the Civil War? No? Me, neither. But then you and I must not be puritanically leftwing enough, or we'd see this for the Civil War reference that it is. Or not.

Here's my crack at those lines: we're living in a nightmare where basic necessities of life are unaffordable while rich people keep getting richer, and this really sucks. We harken back to days not of enslaving other people, which never benefitted the average person of any color back when the US was a a largely slavery-based economy, but to the days when we had community and could afford to live somewhere.

The next few lines of the chorus:

    These rich men north of Richmond
    Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
    Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
    And they don't think you know, but I know that you do

There are those on the left-liberal spectrum who will read these lines as some presumed Trump fan condemning the Biden administration and the liberal elite. This presumption is itself a bigoted one, based on the notion that this guy who lives in the countryside in Virginia, is white, and has a big beard must be a Trump supporter attacking the liberal elite. Many liberals like to deny the very existence of a liberal elite, while at the same time assuming that that's what people like this guy must be referring to, if there's any possibility of interpreting their words that way.

I think it's obvious what he's saying here, and the words speak for themselves. This is a plutocracy, the plutocrats want to keep the people controlled, divided, and conquered, and they maintain control through extensive surveillance, infiltration, and various other means.

The last lines of the chorus:

    'Cause your dollar ain't shit and it's taxed to no end
    ’Cause of rich men north of Richmond

Some left-liberal types will say that these are lines reflecting the privilege of the author, who doesn't want to pay his fair share of taxes to support the less privileged. And once again, that is an outrageous understanding of these lines, that probably more accurately reflects the privilege of the people interpreting them this way than the person who wrote them, or most of those who appreciate the song.

The working class does indeed pay the lion's share of the taxes in this country, far more than we should. The tax rate in Japan is lower than it is here, and they get the world's best mass transit, universal health care, excellent schools for everyone, and so much more. What do we get? None of that, to be sure.

Next comes the second verse, or maybe it's the second verse and the bridge, but it's next, anyway. Here's the first two lines:

    I wish politicians would look out for miners
    And not just minors on an island somewhere

I have seen this verse interpreted as a nod to Pizzagate, that the songwriter is saying he believes Hillary Clinton runs a pedophilia ring, or something like that. While we can be sure that Oliver Anthony, like most of us, has watched his share of Fox and has heard of Pizzagate, there is a far more charitable interpretation of these lines, which is the more obvious one.

That is, the politicians don't seem to give a shit about the working class (miners or any other profession), and rarely refer to us unless it's a story about fentanyl. How many miners have died of preventable diseases and injuries over the past year? Who knows. But when it comes to a relative handful of teenage girls exploited by Jeffrey Epstein on his private island, there is an endless amount of the media's attention to be found for this subject.

At this point we get to the verse I edited. I'll share Oliver Anthony's original version first. The first two lines:

    Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat
    And the obese milkin' welfare

This is the first place in the song where the author punches down. It's obvious from looking at the guy that he, like me and a massive number of other Americans, have struggled with our weight. I've noticed it's very common for people who themselves struggle with their weight to make insulting references to people who are heavier than they are. It's a sad thing to do. I'm guessing he hasn't really given this much thought. But this is how I adjusted those lines, by changing one word:

    Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat
    And the corporations milkin' welfare

I'd say that's much more accurate. The idea of people on welfare having anything to do with the plutocratic dystopia we find ourselves living in today is silly, and Fox-induced, generally. But the fact that those on welfare are being supported by taxes largely paid by working class people like Anthony is just a fact -- it's how our unjust system of taxation is designed to work, so that the rich don't have to pay, and so that the working class can be taught to resent those on welfare. But in reality, the corporations are the welfare scammers, far more than any unemployed people, be they obese or not.

Anthony's verse continues:

    Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds
    Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds

This is the only section of a verse that I completely rewrote. Obviously, Anthony is continuing with the obesity theme he established in the last line. Here it's pretty clear he is blaming fat people for being fat. Or, to interpret the lines more charitably, he's saying that if someone is going to be fat, they shouldn't have their grocery bills subsidized by our hard-earned taxes.

Rather than attacking Anthony for being prejudiced against fat people or welfare recipients (or fat welfare recipients) -- a prejudice indeed exhibited in these lines pretty evidently -- it seems to me it's important to understand a few things here.

First of all, it's just a song written by a guy in Virginia. If there are lines that need improving, we can improve them, we don't need to trash the whole song because he gets some things wrong from the standpoint of working class solidarity or prejudice against fat people on some form of government assistance. We can also understand what should be obvious to any American, that anyone who is critical of fat people is talking about their own families, and likely themselves and many of their friends.

It may be sad, but it's undoubtedly true, that among those tens of millions of people who have become enthusiastic fans of Oliver Anthony and this song, millions of them are both fat and poor, and they still like the song. This may speak in part to our tendency to revile ourselves, among the working class generally. We are not reflected in Hollywood. We tend to look down upon ourselves, and our neighbors. We tend to aspire to be different -- richer, thinner.

In any case, here's how I re-invented those two lines, in a way that I'll bet Anthony and most of his fans would be fine with:

    If you got a silver spoon in your mouth and a private jet
    Taxes ought not to pay for all the money you get

I only changed the lines so we're punching up, like he's doing for most of the rest of the song.

Here are the last lines of the song before the chorus repeats:

    Young men are puttin' themselves six feet in the ground
    'Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin' them down

I'm sure these lines will be interpreted by some inclined towards being polarized as a reference to white people being kicked down. There is no real reason anyone should interpret the lines that way, but for those who have already decided the song is some kind of wistful ode to the Confederacy, they can interpret anything in any way they want to. But the more obvious and probable interpretation of these lines is he's talking about his family, friends, and neighbors who work in mines and paper mills and often die young, violent deaths either on or off the job, for reasons related to hard work and poverty.

I'll just add as a final observation unrelated to the song in particular, but to my experience of learning it, that when I was figuring it out, I did it in the same key as Anthony, singing the same notes he's singing. I mention this because usually if I'm learning a song someone else wrote, I end up doing it in a different key, to suit my vocal range. But I often start out doing it in the key they recorded it in. In this case, I never changed the key, because I discovered that the break in my voice is exactly in the same place as the break in his voice. (If you're a singer, you know what I'm talking about. If you're not, it's not important.) Also when I was young, my beard was the same shade of orange as his.

I'm personally looking forward to hearing more songs from Oliver Anthony, and also seeing if his beard gets any longer down the road. And here's to hoping that all the leftists attacking him on anti-social media don't succeed in turning him into an actual rightwinger.

David Rovics ft. Kamala Emanuel | When Julian Met Stella (Cafe Mir in Oslo)

David Rovics ft. Kamala Emanuel | Brisbane 8 April 2023 (Killing the Messenger tour)

Photo Credits: (1) Oliver Anthony, (2)-(4) David Rovics (unknown/website).

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