It’s been hard for me to listen to anything other than The Band since Robbie Robertson died. The Band’s contribution to American music is both sonic and spiritual. They existed in a moment of radical change, which was reflected in music from The Beatles’ The White Album to “Harper Valley PTA.” They created a mystic sense of wonder born of the American past, countering The White Album with a self-titled work that got nicknamed The Brown Album.
The Brown Album is a stunning document, one that casts a hazy lens onto America. Mysteries abound, intentionally so: Tracks like “Unfaithful Servant” and “Jawbone” are about servants and thieves, betrayal and temptation. Everything is an allusion built around a groove, except for one song: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
On Aug. 7, a YouTube channel called “radiowv” uploaded a song by a guy nobody had ever heard of named Oliver Anthony with the pointed title of “Rich Men North of Richmond.” All sorts of accusations have followed the song’s rapid rise up the Billboard charts—including that Anthony, who lambasts politicians (the “rich men north of Richmond”) and welfare recipients in equal measure, has an incoherent political ideology. Indeed, his overnight rise from alcoholic obscurity into viral success is a version of the American dream.
The video of “Rich Men,” which features Anthony alone, singing and playing his guitar in his backyard, has a certain austerity to it, which, for The New Yorker’s Jay Caspian King, called to mind the works of documentarian Les Blank. This aesthetic has been used to bolster Anthony’s credentials as somebody who is very real. To quote perpetual conservative culture warrior Matt Walsh, “We are suffocated by artificiality. Everything around us is fake. A guy in the woods pouring his heart over his guitar is real.” One has to wonder what Walsh would have made of Robertson, a half-Native, half-Jewish Canadian who wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
The Band was filled with contradictions that would challenge our modern conceptions of authenticity. There was only one Southern member of The Band, Levon Helm, who took Robbie to a library in Woodstock, New York, to make sure that he got his facts right when he wanted to sing about the fall of the Confederacy. Helm offered one piece of advice, described in Robertson’s memoir Testify: Don’t mention Abraham Lincoln. “That won’t go down too well.”
What ties “Rich Men” and “The Night” together is one evocative word: Richmond. The capital of the Confederacy, with ironworks and shipping yards that were at the economic center of the slavocracy. In 1863, in response to the brutal austerity of the war, riots broke out in Richmond, the largest civil disturbance in the Confederacy’s mercifully short history. Richmond’s lawmakers divided the city into the “unworthy poor” who had protested and the “worthy poor” who did not. It calls to mind Anthony’s line sneering at the “obese milking welfare.”
Like a pre-trailer that plays before an actual movie trailer on social media, Anthony pulls the viewer in within seconds. If he turns into a one-hit wonder and never records again, people will remember the lines “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay.” Anyone can relate to that.
It’s a promising start, but the song quickly devolves. One reason that the song’s lyrics have been analyzed like Emily Dickinson in a freshman English class—is Anthony racist? Does he have class solidarity? Who has “total control?”—is that the song is almost all lyrics, with nothing for music save a spare acoustic guitar accompaniment. The video has a stark visual appeal, but listening to the song on Spotify, without Anthony’s beard, or dogs, or the woods, and he starts to sound like he’s reciting a list of things that are bothering him: miners, Jeffrey Epstein, fat people eating fudge rounds. It winds up feeling like a very online “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
But people love “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” even if it sucks. Underneath the original YouTube video, an avalanche of comments offer up comments of thanks from Germany, England, Mexico, Newfoundland, Scotland, wherever, saying that Anthony is speaking for them. “I’m an electrician fighting like hell to keep the bills paid and this man is singing what my soul has been screaming,” says one, and if this song gets somebody through the trials of life, so be it.
Speaking about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on SiriusXM decades later, Robertson dodged the question of if it was, to quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, “another story about the blues of Pharaoh.” He was simply trying to write a song that Levon Helm could sing “better than anyone in the world,” a goal at which he succeeded at time and again. It’s unlikely that anyone in the world could have taken on the voice of Virgil Caine, who served on the Danville train.
Robertson had an undeniable ability to craft a scene with just a few words. “Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee,” paints the traitor as a legend. Robertson hints that the Confederacy was failing—“I don’t care if the money’s no good,” and then, as Richmond falls, all the people were singing. Not the Confederates, not the Union soldiers, not the enslaved. All the people.
There can be problems with this sort of universality, but “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is shooting for something so much larger than “Rich Men North of Richmond.” It focuses on the pain of loss, subtly recognizes the joy of liberation, and offers up a suggestion that the only reconciliation will be found in the shared experience of song.
Maybe Anthony will be a flash in the pan, maybe he’ll try to avoid the culture wars altogether, maybe he’ll figure out his politics more clearly. Whatever he does next, he’d be well-served looking to the epic scale that Roberston strove for with “The Night” and the rest of his remarkable catalog. The only way to understand America, Robertson argued with his songs, was through myth. That’s what lasts more than any viral hit.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.