American songwriting, whether it is folk, rock, or country, has a long history of featuring lyrics and music about the things that inspire the writers.
In 1970, after one singer had been performing onstage for only a few months, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert came across him quite by accident.
And the experience floored him.
Ebert recalled in a column years later, “Through no wisdom of my own but out of sheer blind luck, I walked into the Fifth Peg, a folk club on West Armitage, one night in 1970 and heard a mailman from Westchester singing.”
That mailman was the quirky and wildly talented John Prine, who was performing his own songs that night and would go on to become a raspy-voiced country-folk legend. Prine’s brilliant lyrics spoke from experience ranging from tender and affecting to both humorous and angry.
“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs,” Bob Dylan wrote of Prine while listing his favorite songwriters.
And 50 years ago, a still somewhat unknown Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics and music were heralded as “representing an enigma” through the “spew of his hard edge lyrics, sick with alienation and multi-faceted imagery” by Philadelphia Daily News reporter Jonathan Takiff after he saw him perform at the Main Point in Pennsylvania.
Neither of the reviews for either man mentioned politics; it was about the music, the connection the lyrics made with the people in the room, and how the audience, in turn, enthusiastically responded to it.
It was a different time. It was arguably a better time.
Several weeks ago, Oliver Anthony, another young musician with complex life experiences, talent, and a story to tell, burst onto the music scene with his ballad “Rich Men North of Richmond.”
It was a story—because that is what good songs are, good storytelling—that touched a lot of people for a number of different reasons. It was in the pain for some. For others, it was in the feeling of abandonment by those in power. But for the most part, it was in the daily struggles of making ends meet and never finding a way to move up and out.
“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day Overtime hours for [expletive] pay So I can sit out here and waste my life away Drag back home and drown my troubles away It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to For people like me and people like you Wish I could just wake up and it not be true But it is, oh, it is.”
It was also in his gutting delivery.
The ballad caught on like wildfire—and like clockwork and the parasite that politics is, the political world tried to co-opt him and his song. The right began saying he is one of them, and the left and the media are saying that of course he is and then called it racist.
If you were a person who has lived the pain Mr. Anthony wrote about in “Rich Men North of Richmond,” you knew immediately it was never about the right or the left; people like Mr. Anthony and the thousands of people I have listened to and written about throughout my career don’t think that way. They never did. They don’t view the world through a left/right prism. Instead, often, it is viewed from the outside looking in.
That’s the point of Mr. Anthony’s song: The cultural curators who hold all of the power living in those six richest ZIP codes that surround Washington, D.C., actually know no one like you, nor do they understand the lives you lead.
Mr. Anthony let them know in no uncertain terms in his own way. Then more recently, he dropped a video addressing the political firestorm he’s stirred up. Sitting in the rain in his truck, Mr. Anthony said in no uncertain terms he doesn’t align with either side, or the way both sides are using his song as either a political anthem or weapon for their team.
Dane Strother, a Democratic media consultant who does work in both Washington, D.C., and California, said that while the far right was too quick to claim the song, the far left was too quick to condemn it. More importantly, though, he said that if you understand the human condition and people as a whole, neither party should have tried to make it a political sideshow.
Mr. Strother said Mr. Anthony’s willingness to speak up and not let anyone define the song took guts: “That is what we lack in this country, someone willing to speak in anger at both sides if necessary. I applaud this guy for stepping forward and saying, ‘You’re all wrong.’ That took some courage.”
Mr. Strother said he personally might not agree with all of Mr. Anthony’s lyrics but also said, “What I do know is that he is speaking for a lot of people.”
Mr. Strother said that folk singers such as Prine back in the day didn’t have MSNBC and Fox, or silos on the internet where we feed each other our beliefs.
“And thank goodness for that, no one had to say what their politics were because often they were apolitical, they just felt something and they wrote and sang about it.”
Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University who is an expert in American populism, also said he wasn’t surprised that Mr. Anthony didn't cleave to either party.
“We put these sort of templates on people,” Mr. Sracic said. “He’s got the Southern accent, so we think, oh, Southern conservative. But the reality is most people don’t spend their life in politics. This is not their lifeblood.”
Most people are also not “very online” and living their lives out on social media, “They’re just trying to live their best life. And they don’t see the United States being on the right track. They don’t see things going the way they should go,” he said.
All you have to do is listen to Mr. Anthony’s lyrics to understand that; it is pretty scattered and all over the place, the way most people think when they try to describe both political parties.
Mr. Sracic said the song is at its core about disconnection, “It’s the two Americas, whether John Edwards talks about it or J.D. Vance talks about it, and it’s not political,” he explained.
Mr. Sracic said when Mr. Vance talked about the people in his book “Hillbilly Elegy,” they weren’t necessarily Republicans.
“They saw something was wrong and they weren’t political at all,” he said. “They weren’t tied to it. So we want to put our template on everybody, but that template, I think, doesn’t really fit. People are just trying to figure out how to fix what’s wrong. And they’re screaming out that something’s wrong.”
And that is what “Rich Men North of Richmond” was all about.