I must have let out more “Amens” than a Pentecostal while listening to Woody Guthrie’s song “Jesus Christ” for the first time.
Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
Hard working man and brave.
He said to the rich, “Give your goods to the poor.”
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
Guthrie is considered one of, if not the, greatest American folk musicians. His name is mentioned with Seeger, Baez, and Dylan. Yet, there’s an additional mythos about him.
The same aura covered the likes of Hank Williams, James Baldwin, and Frida Kahlo. Given to them freely by their own generations, their work represents the trials and circumstances they experienced in their respective and pivotal changing worlds. Their art became a mouthpiece for the people.
In fact, Guthrie’s genre, folk, comes from the German word volk, meaning “the people.” You could argue then the music belonged less to Guthrie and more to the folks he wrote it for, those who felt the hardships brought on by The Great Depression and Dust Bowl.
The appeal of Guthrie’s work rested on his understanding of hard times and his ability to challenge the injustices of classism. He did so by knowing not to kick people when they were already down. He knew people’s problems were not always rooted in their own making.
You won’t find the lyrics “You should have left the Texas Pan when you had the chance” in any of his ballads. Instead, his hands worked his guitar with the same enthusiasm as a gold miner, panning for and pointing to an all-shining truth amid fragmented bleakness.
No, his words of rebuke were saved for wheeling and dealing tailored suits. He knew his battles weren’t with his neighbor but with the powers and principalities of the world.
Race hatred cannot stop us
This one thing we know
Your poll tax and Jim Crow
And greed has got to go
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose.
During desperate times, desperate people often look for a voice like his. Many think they found it in Oliver Anthony.
Who’s Oliver Anthony? He’s not hard to find these days. Crashing onto the scene last week with his tune “Rich Men North of Richmond,” he now boasts several songs in the top ten U.S. iTunes charts.
Endorsements came in waves from all over the country, from the Joe Everyman types to right-wing political commentator Matt Walsh and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene went so far as to say on Twitter that Anthony’s song is “the anthem of the forgotten Americans.”
Yet, Anthony is still relatively unknown. His rags to riches, pulling-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps story, is part of why so many are fascinated by him. What little is known has come from Anthony himself, and on paper, Anthony appears to check the “everyman” criteria he shared on social media.
“I dropped out of high school at age 17. I have a GED from Spruce Pine, North Carolina. I worked multiple plant jobs in Western North Carolina, my last being at the paper mill in McDowell County. I worked third shift, six days a week for $14.50 an hour in a living hell.
“In 2013, I had a bad fall at work and fractured my skull. It forced me to move back home to Virginia.
“From 2014 until just a few days ago, I’ve worked outside sales in the industrial manufacturing world. My job has taken me all over Virginia and into the Carolinas, getting to know tens of thousands of other blue-collar workers on job sites and in factories.
“I’ve spent all day, every day, for the last 10 years hearing the same story. People are SO damn tired of being neglected, divided and manipulated.”
This was included in the same Facebook post where he claims to have turned down an $8 million music deal. No fame, no money, no giant music tour. Just a message.
This message, and more particularly, who it appeals to, is why my ordained back-row-Baptist self came out of my pew and into the public square again. I, like Anthony, am the child of the working class.
I had one grandfather in the tobacco fields and the other in the textile mills. He, my father, and even I wore the literal blue-collar Dickie’s to manufacturing jobs.
We worked 12-hour shifts in extreme conditions, breathing in contaminated air laced with chemicals used to plate electronic parts for automobiles and cell phones. We worked jobs that have long gone south or overseas. Anthony is right; those spaces were filled with the neglected, exploited, and paychecks that didn’t come close to what they should have been.
But I don’t ever remember punching the clock, thinking that somebody on government assistance was to blame for those conditions—not when I had a CEO like Dennis Kozlowski. This is where we differ.
Thousands have embraced Anthony as the genuine article, but not all. Rumblings have surfaced of him being an industry plant or “astroturf artist.”
While Anthony says his politics are middle of the road, his now edited YouTube playlist channel “Videos that make your noggin get bigger” suggests otherwise with a conservative cocktail of Jordan Peterson, conspiracy theories, and a splash of religious fervor in the form of Billy Graham.
Speculation aside, two things are clear. Anthony has struck a nerve with working-class whites. He’s gaining support in right-wing political circles.
How? He speaks a familiar language through the repackaging of tried-and-true class- shaming and fear-inducing propaganda.
Whether adopted or inherited, Anthony’s lyrics touch on everything from Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” and Jeffery Epstein’s pedophile island to assuring a group of people they are right in believing they are losing agency in a country that means to leave them behind.
I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare
Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground
‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down
Not exactly the unifying class cry of Guthrie, Seeger, or Baez.
Shaming someone for using their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card to purchase a Little Debbie snack is classless. Continuing to perpetuate Pizzagate conspiracy theories displays either a need for security in one’s own life at best and, at worst, a desire to feel superior over others.
No, this is something different. More of an anthem for a people eager to see things return to a perceived great-again era that was the case for some but not for all. This isn’t like Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” calling a nation to deal with its systemic problems.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
I worry it’s more of Cabaret’s “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.”
Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
The morning will come
When the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me
That’s a chilling message. One undeserving of getting a tomorrow.
And if Anthony is the voice for his people, I’ll count myself as not part of his crowd—even if they are the people I come from.
For now, I’ll stick with Guthrie.
Senior pastor of Second Baptist Church, Suffield, Connecticut. Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, baking and amateur gardening, most of his time is spent with his spouse, Lauren, and their two daughters. Opinions and reflections are his own.