“Rich Men North of Richmond” was the first song Oliver Anthony says he ever recorded using a professional microphone. The red-bearded Virginian’s out-of-nowhere country hit gets a whole lot done in just three minutes. It’s a working man’s anthem (“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day/ Overtime hours for bullshit pay”), a conservative rallying cry (“’cause your dollar ain’t shit, and it’s taxed to no end”), and a starter kit for the conspiracy curious (“I wish politicians would look out for miners/ And not just minors on an island somewhere”). But while this might be the first American chart-topper to reference Jeffrey Epstein’s sex crimes, Anthony’s viral sensation isn’t all that newfangled, either as a piece of music or a culture war grenade.
Don’t be fooled by the title: The most vividly drawn villains in “Rich Men North of Richmond” aren’t rich. “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat/ And the obese milkin’ welfare,” Anthony yowls in the second verse. In the next couplet, he completes the picture: “Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds/ Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of Fudge Rounds.”
It’s a potent image, one that draws on the “welfare queen” stereotype that oozed to life in the 1970s. I could go on for many hundreds of pages about where that trope came from and how it got deployed—and I have. But if you want a primer on the musical tradition that Oliver Anthony is drawing on, all you have to do is listen to another out-of-nowhere country hit: Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadilac.”
Like Oliver Anthony, Guy Drake didn’t take a traditional path to music stardom. Drake was born in Kentucky in 1904 and worked as an undertaker’s assistant, among other odd jobs. The way he told it, inspiration struck him when he was well into middle age. One day in the mid-1960s, he was perched high above the earth, painting a radio tower, when he came upon a striking scene:
I looked down and saw this shanty that was half wood and half Holiday Inn sign with a roof made of sawmill slabs, tin cans, and pieces of linoleum. There was a litter of younguns, some of ’em old enough for school, without a stitch of clothes on. I didn’t see any grownups. What really got me was this Cadillac parked in front of the house.
According to Drake, when he made his way back down to the ground, he scribbled a bunch of words on a paint-can label—the first song he ever wrote. For years after that, he said, he couldn’t convince anyone to record those lyrics. But in 1969, he spent $1,500 of his own money to have a record made. Not long after that, “Welfare Cadilac”—Drake spelled it with one L—started motoring across the country, picking up fans and inciting outrage.
“Welfare Cadilac” is less a song than a twangified spoken-word poem. In a slow Kentucky drawl, Drake describes a shack with a busted screen door and cracks in the walls: “I know the place ain’t much but I sure don’t pay no rent.” But not everything is so broken down. “I get a check the first of every month, from this here federal government,” Drake rhymes, a hint of mischief in his voice. “Every Wednesday I get commodities, why, sometimes four or five sacks/ Pick ’em up down at the welfare office, driving that new Cadilac.”
Drake’s song hit Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart in January 1970. A month later, Variety reported that 50 welfare recipients “stormed into” a Kansas City radio station and demanded that it be taken off the air. A few weeks after that, an Oregon welfare official sent a recorded statement to radio stations in that state. “It isn’t easy being poor,” he said. “Those who are need a helping hand, not ridicule and shame.”
Guy Drake was in the ridicule business. When he performed “Welfare Cadilac” on television, he did it with a sly, toothless grin and a comically enormous flower on his lapel.
Drake said that all those protesters were taking him way too seriously. “I didn’t write this song to make anybody mad,” he told a reporter. “I just wanted people to laugh, because I figured if they were laughing they wouldn’t be thinking about their troubles.” He also added: “If they ain’t on welfare and don’t drive a Cadillac, then I ain’t talking about them.”
Not everyone found that argument convincing. Rolling Stone magazine called Drake’s song “disgustingly racist,” a three-minute riff on how undeserving layabouts live high on the hog while hardworking Americans get shafted. But in 1970, a whole lot of Americans were humming Drake’s tune. When a Louisville station asked its listeners to weigh in, they voted 28 to 1 in favor of “Welfare Cadilac.”
Drake’s most prominent supporter—and his best publicist—was the president of the United States. In the spring of 1970, Richard Nixon requested that Johnny Cash play three songs during a scheduled visit to the White House: “A Boy Named Sue,” “Okie From Muskogee,” and “Welfare Cadilac.” When those selections became public, civil rights officials howled in protest. Meanwhile, Drake’s record scales tripled, growing from 5,000 to 15,000 a day.
Cash ultimately declined to sing “Welfare Cadilac” for Nixon or anyone else. But Guy Drake’s record, and the conversations surrounding it, just wouldn’t die. Drake’s record label, Royal American, released a cover version recorded by a Black blues musician, Jerry McCain. Rolling Stone was not impressed: “It’s identical to the original except at the end of each verse McCain lets out this big Amos and Andy knee-slapping guffaw and jives, ‘Ain’t that a blessing.’ ”
There were also covers by white artists, a rebuttal song called “About That Welfare Cadillac?,” and a tune, “Mortgaged Plymouth,” that was billed as the “taxpayers’ answer” to “Welfare Cadilac.”
At the height of the song’s popularity, in April 1970, Guy Drake got tossed in a Kentucky jail. The charge: writing a bad check to buy a used car. Drake laughed the whole thing off, saying the whole thing was ancient history, and that he thought the debt had been paid. He got released quickly and started churning out new music, including an anti-peacenik anthem called “The Marching Hippies.”
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“And there’s one other that some won’t like,” he told Billboard. “It takes a crack at people who keep on having children to draw bigger aid checks.”
I’m not sure if that song ever got released. But the Miami Herald reported that Drake did take to driving a 1970 Cadillac with “Welfare Cadilac” printed on the side. And in 1971, he announced his biggest gambit yet: He was running for president. “This may be the last chance to save the country,” he said.
Guy Drake was no threat to his old friend Richard Nixon. In the end, he didn’t run for anything, and the papers and the public lost interest in his stunts and his music. When he died in 1984, the legacy he left behind was a song that rose as high as No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart.
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Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” has already soared much higher than “Welfare Cadilac” ever did, hitting No. 1 on iTunes, Spotify, and Apple Music. (The top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 might be next.) In some ways, Anthony’s path to stardom looks a lot like Drake’s. They share a blue-collar background and an us-against-them message, and they’ve both drawn loads of progressive critics and high-profile conservative supporters. But listening to their songs and reading their words, I get the sense that Drake and Anthony are very different people.
Drake was a huckster and an opportunist. He gave people what they wanted to hear and laughed all the way to the Cadillac dealership. Anthony comes off as entirely sincere and genuinely angry—about rich men and Jeffrey Epstein, but especially “the obese milkin’ welfare,” people he believes don’t deserve what they’re getting. That’s a message with a whole lot of resonance for a whole lot of Americans, in the 1970s and today. And that kind of resentment isn’t anything to joke about.