By Jon Miltimore
Oliver Anthony’s song “Rich Men North of Richmond” is the most talked about song in America.
Released just this month, the Virginia native’s blue-collar tune is already approaching 40 million views on YouTube and landed on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 on Tuesday, making Anthony the first musician in history to hit #1 with no previous chart history.
Though a clear hit with listeners, the song has come under attack in some quarters for its economic populism. Anthony takes aim at everything from inflation and high taxes to low wages and welfare.
Because of the song’s subject matter, I don’t think it’s unfair to describe Anthony’s song as politically charged, as some have. And though there’s no doubt that the song has resonated with people of all backgrounds, it’s hardly surprising that many journalists have attacked the song for this very reason.
What’s a bit more shocking is the possibility that Anthony’s heartfelt song and outspoken views may have resulted in unwanted attention from a different source: the FBI.
Edward Snowden, the famous whistleblower who blew the lid on the National Security Agency’s unlawful surveillance program, recently hinted that there’s a good chance the FBI has already opened a file on Anthony.
“After hitting topping the iTunes list and tweeting like this, the FBI will be making space for him another kind of list, too,” Snowden tweeted. “Think I’m kidding? The FBI had a file on John Denver for attending *one* anti-war protest.”
Snowden is not mistaken about John Denver. The FBI actually did open a file on the beloved American folk singer, apparently after Denver attended a “Dump the War Rally” in Minnesota in 1971.
Indeed, the FBI has a long history of keeping files on famous people, particularly those seen as “agitators” or purveyors of “subversive” ideas.
In reality, most of these celebrities were guilty of little more than opposing US foreign policy and advocating civil rights for all Americans. Among those targeted by the FBI include icons such as Muhammad Ali, Truman Capote, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and Jackie Robinson.
Ali and MLK apparently came under scrutiny because of their civil rights activities, while Lennon and Capote appear to have been targeted for opposing US military adventurism abroad, though Capote admitted private comments he made about J. Edgar Hoover’s sexuality may have also played a role.
“It got Hoover upset, that much I know,” said the In Cold Blood author, who supported the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and opposed the US invasion of Cuba (the Bay of Pigs). “And it got me…about 200 pages in an FBI file.”
In fact, Capote is just one of many literary giants to be investigated by the FBI. Other celebrated authors include James Baldwin, whom the FBI monitored for 16 years, and John Steinbeck.
“Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels?” The Grapes of Wrath author wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1942. “They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome.”
Hollywood actors the FBI has opened files on include Lucille Ball, who once registered as a communist, and Rock Hudson, who appears to have come under scrutiny simply because he was gay.
We don’t of course know if the FBI has opened a file on Oliver Anthony. (The Bureau is not in the habit of announcing such news until after subjects are dead.) But one person who might not be surprised if he is, is Anthony himself, who has this to say about those men north of Richmond.
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do
Anthony might be right that the people he’s singing to know the powers in DC want to know what they think and do, but if he’s right, it invites a question: why do Americans tolerate it?
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that government agencies opening secret files on songwriters like Anthony and John Denver seems like something we’d expect more from the Stasi than the law enforcement of a free and liberal society.
Such clandestine and invasive activities invite important questions on the true role of government. Maybe it takes someone like Oliver Anthony to remind us what that role is.
About the author: Jonathan Miltimore is the Editor at Large of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.