A Controversial Country Song Became a Smash Overnight. A Folk Luminary Thought It Was Missing Something.

Hit play and you hear a spare acoustic guitar entwined with a man’s voice, singing in a pronounced accent about the soul-crushing conditions of modern life, where the best an honest laborer can hope for is “overtime hours for bullshit pay.” But instead of a fiery lament aimed at shadowy elites and government free-riders eating Fudge Rounds, this version of Oliver Anthony’s explosively viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” takes an unexpected turn. Released by the British punk-turned-folk-singer Billy Bragg, it’s called “Rich Men Earning North of a Million,” and it’s racked up more than a hundred thousand views since it was uploaded to YouTube yesterday. The answer song is a gentle corrective to Anthony’s original, a rebuke to some of its more poisonous assertions and a suggestion to channel the populist rage it expresses towards more deserving targets. In reply to Anthony’s swipe at overweight welfare cheats, Bragg sings, “We ain’t gonna punch down on those who need a bit of understanding and some solidarity—that ain’t right, friend.” And rather than stop with outrage, Bragg has an idea about what to do with it, the same one he had when he was a young songwriter taking on Margaret Thatcher with an electric guitar and an amplifier slung over his back: Join a union.

From his home in Dorset, Bragg—who has been finding the common ground between the Clash and Woody Guthrie for the past 40 years, and was the man asked by Guthrie’s daughter to set his unheard lyrics to music—spoke to Slate about why he felt like Anthony’s song deserved a response in kind, and offered some advice from a veteran songwriter about the perils of sudden fame. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When did you first encounter “Rich Men North of Richmond”?

Probably about a week ago, it started to filter through over here. And initially when I saw it, this image of a bearded guy singing in the woods, to be honest, I thought, that’s right up my street. When he talks about working overtime hours for bullshit pay, I’m like, yeah, I’m totally with this. When he’s talking about the rich men north of Richmond, and about people sleeping on the street with nothing to eat, I’m still in there. But then he starts going on about obese people messing with welfare, and I’m like, hang on a minute. What’s going on here? Because up till now, it kind of sounds like the sort of thing that Woody Guthrie would sing. And then the next thing he starts getting really specific about short, fat people who receive welfare, only to spend it on what I later discovered are chocolate biscuits. It’s such a discordant image that I really had to go back and start listening to the song again. I realized it was really about punching down, wasn’t it? I think the key line is when he says “I wish I could wake up and it not be true.” You have to do a little bit more than that.

You famously made your American debut walking around New York City with your “porta-stack,” basically a mobile PA system you wore on your back. So I imagine the spareness of Oliver Anthony’s setup in the viral video rings some bells for you.

I’ve done that, during lockdown, lots of videos of just me out back singing into my phone. I think it’s a really good way to get the word out. And I want to stress I have absolutely nothing against Oliver Anthony. I hope that his newfound fame allows him to make a living playing music, because it’s an incredible privilege to be able to do that. I just feel that he’s going to get asked a lot of questions by people who have a partisan point of view one way or the other, and it might help if he had a better response. The one I’ve seen at the moment, “I sit dead center down the aisle,” I don’t think that’s going to fly, either for his supporters or for the people who took issue with the song. In writing “Rich Men Earning North of a Million,” I was trying to just give him a bit of an insight from someone whose idea about writing songs about the pressure that working people come under was shaped very much by the 1984 miners’ strike in the U.K., where I learned a lot about solidarity. I think there’s just a bit of a lack of solidarity in this song.

There are a number of places in your “Rich Men” where you directly rewrite parts of Oliver Anthony’s, and one of the phrases you zero in on is “People like me and people like you.” You’re implicitly asking the question, what about people who aren’t like you?

Exactly. Who are you talking about there? It seems to me the song makes a distinction between the deserving poor, those who are homeless, on the streets, and the undeserving poor, those people finding some sort of comfort in Fudge Rounds. I find that hard to deal with, and a lot of people have found that hard to deal with. I don’t think it’s a distinction that should be made.

Americans tend to have a warped idea about who actually receives public assistance, most of which goes to working-class white people.

Farm subsidies in the United States of America keep rural people employed. There are more people on Medicare in rural areas in the United States of America. I tried to address that whole “Try That in a Small Town” bullshit in the last part of the song as well, when I say, “Whether you live in a city or some little country town”—it doesn’t really matter. That’s an artificial divide. Poor people, wherever they are, are suffering and they deserve our support, whether they’re some person out in the prairies or someone in the inner city.

That’s even in the change you make to the title of the song, which shifts the target from a geographical boundary to one having to do with economic power and social class.

I think Oliver Anthony is thinking about class as well, but it’s not so focused for him. Again, I don’t want to attack him, because I don’t really know him, don’t know what his background is. But in the lyric anyway, it’s not so clear. I think he all but gets there. You’d only have to have to take three or four lines out of the song. If he hadn’t written that line about the Fudge Rounds, I don’t think anyone would be talking about this in the way they do. I’m sure it would have caused a stir, but there was something really petty about that. It just seemed to me to be unnecessarily spiteful. You’re trying to get people to sympathize with people who are having hard times. That’s the point of his song, isn’t it? It’s people are having hard times, and these rich men north of Richmond don’t care. And while he’s doing that at the same time, he’s punching down. Woody would never do that.

Do you understand what people are responding to in the song?

I think there is an element of the way people responded to “Try That in a Small Town,” although I think that song was really trying to stir up a reaction. I don’t think that Oliver wants to stir up the culture wars. I don’t think that was his intent at all. But I think, unfortunately, the tinder of the culture was so dry, that one little spark went and away it goes.

But once you’ve written a song and put it out there, you have to kind of accept the way people respond to it. You can’t guarantee that people are going to exactly get what you’re going on about. They’re going to hear the bit they want to hear. So if you want to just hear the bit about Jeffrey Epstein, if you just want to hear the bit about the obese milking welfare, it’s very easy to just zoom in on that part of the song. As a songwriter, you have to be really careful you’re not giving an obvious hook to people like that, that you’re making sure that when you craft a song, the lyrics can’t be separated from the context. I think he’s struggling, as we all are, to make sense of a world in which it’s really hard to find compassion and empathy. He feels he’s writing a song about compassion for these poor, downtrodden people—it’s just he unfortunately lashes out at other downtrodden people. And then you’re forced to ask yourself, well, what are his real motives here? Does he really care about downtrodden people, or does he care about certain downtrodden people? Slimmed-down people at least 5’6” tall who don’t have a sweet tooth?

Do you think there’s a place for a song that just expresses or focuses that anger without necessarily pointing to a solution?

I think it’s helpful if you do at least hint in some way that there might be a means of redemption. One thing I love about Bruce Springsteen is his characters are never left completely bereft of hope. Woody Guthrie wrote, “I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. I’m out to fight those songs to my very last breath.” That was something I learned from working on [Guthrie’s] Mermaid Avenue archives. Woody never wrote a cynical song in his life. I feel I’m part of that tradition. You’re not going to solve anything with a song. Music can’t change the world—we all know that. But you can at least make a suggestion of where the problem lies from your perspective and how you might solve it. I’m trying to suggest that it doesn’t matter what color you are, the problem is that the system is rigged against you by rich people. Oliver Anthony would say “That’s what my song was about.” And I would say, why don’t you write about that without punching down? Why don’t you let those people eat their fudge rounds? There’s also a kind of Reaganite anti-taxation thing in there, to say nothing of the Jeffrey Epstein swipe. I didn’t want him in my fucking song.

Watching Oliver Anthony perform for an audience, it’s hard to get a fix on which parts of the song really move them. They seem to cheer equally for the references to “bullshit pay” and child trafficking.

The song has a bit of a strange structure. It doesn’t have a singable chorus. It has some repeats, but it doesn’t break out of that four-chord round thing that he does. Which is fine—Woody wrote songs like that. I’ve written songs like that. But it’s not a hooky chorus, so you’ve got to imagine people are taking it on the lyrical content, right? It’s not just that they like young, hairy guys from Appalachia—there’s plenty of them to choose from.

It’s a shame that it’s a right-wing song, but it may reflect how desperate they are to get a bit of cultural heft. I think one of the problems they have is they feel they have economic hegemony and political hegemony, but they just can’t stand the fact they don’t have the cultural edge anymore. I think a lot of their anger is about that, that the culture doesn’t glorify their worldview, that the culture is constantly changing. That’s the problem they have. History is static, but culture is fluid. Right? So they cling to their history, and even that moves, as we’ve seen over the last few years with the statues coming down. But culture is fluid, it leaves us all behind. It’s left me behind, from where I was in the ’80s. It leaves all of us behind eventually. I think they have a real problem with that.

It’s interesting that “Rich Men North of Richmond” going to No. 1 is largely driven by people buying downloads, which is not something anyone has to do to access a song anymore. Conservatives are very deliberately making a show of their cultural power.

It’s symbolic, isn’t it? And as someone who went out and bought “God Save the Queen” in the hope that the Sex Pistols would go to No. 1, I relate to that. But, you know, I, 100 percent, as a punk rocker, was outside the culture, and I’m not so sure that the white working class that Oliver’s writing about is outside of culture. I don’t can’t think you can think of them as outsiders within the United States of America.

One of the things that’s happened in the 40 years you’ve been playing music is that union membership has dropped off dramatically: In the U.S., the percentage is about half now what it was in 1983. Is “join a union” still a viable solution to the problems both of these songs are about?

There’s been a rise in union activity in the United States of America in the last couple of years. Last time I was over, I ended up playing a picket line outside of a Starbucks in Buffalo. And the interesting thing was it was all young people doing the organizing. When I go out on a picket line, I find new people. The writers are out at the moment and the actors are out as well, and the Uber drivers went on strike, didn’t they? Amazon are trying to organize. I think there’s more and more young people who are recognizing that in organizing, there is an ability to have some agency over their lives.

The thing about the idea that paying for a 99-cent download and sending Oliver Anthony to No. 1 is an expression of power is that it’s kind of the end of the line. You’ve made your point and that’s that. It’s not going to get you better wages or healthcare. The only goal is to assert that you exist.

No, no. You’re not going to get anything like that. And I don’t think the people who are suffering in the way he’s talking about, the people he’s singing the song for, deserve just to have a litany of problems sang at them. I think they deserve to have some kind of opportunity to address these issues.

I think the best art tries to inspire you to take a fresh perspective and to engage. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about engagement. It doesn’t seem like engagement in Oliver’s song. It just seems that he wants to wake up and it not be true—but it is. And that’s the end of it. That’s where his analysis ends. I’m like, “Whoa, come on, buddy. Come on. You really want to wake up?” But I guess if he woke up, people wouldn’t like him, would they? Because then he’d be fucking woke.

Previous post How ‘Queen Charlotte’ Costumes Pulled Inspiration From the Met Gala
Next post Quarterback draft tiers, including salary cap values