The Real Problem With the Song “Rich Men North of Richmond”

The viral hit’s most political line isn’t about the rich at all — it’s a swipe at the poor rooted in ignorant stereotypes

Tim Wise

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Image: Pxfuel, creative commons

First, the viral country hit by Oliver Anthony, “Rich Men, North of Richmond,” isn’t as bad as some believe.

Musically, it’s simple — a positive feature in today’s world of over-produced country tunes — Anthony’s voice is strong, and in theory, a song taking swipes at elites in Washington DC (thus, the title) for ignoring the plight of the working class, could have been a progressive anthem as easily as it has become a MAGA one.

No, the title is not — as some have insisted — a nod to the old Confederacy (of which Richmond was the capital). It’s just clever wordplay, which is a common feature of many good country songs.

So too, when Anthony says he wishes politicians “would look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere,” it reads as less an endorsement of QAnon’s Jeffrey Epstein obsession than another example of wordplay: contrasting miners with minors, and suggesting we should be as concerned about the former as the latter.

And although right-wingers might view the plight of miners (with an ‘e’) as the fault of environmentalists, who they blame for the shift away from, as Trump puts it, “beautiful, clean coal,” one could also read the line as a broadside aimed at coal company executives who endanger miners while politicians refuse to adequately regulate their activities or hold them accountable for the health effects of mining.

But that is where my ecumenism about Anthony’s hit must end.

Because the key line in the song — the one that so many on the right seem to love most — isn’t about rich men at all, let alone the ones who offer “bullshit pay” for overtime hours.

Instead, it’s a gratuitous swipe at the poor, especially those receiving public assistance — a line as ignorant as the previously mentioned wordplay was clever.

To wit, after mentioning “the obese milkin’ welfare,” Anthony sings:

Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds/Taxes ought not to pay for your bags…

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Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)