This song is about people who lead a monotonous life, doing the same things the same way, day after day. They never take risks and are content living this way until they die. Matthews compares these people to ants who perform the same daily tasks over and over.
The last line in the second verse provided the album title:
He forgets them
And remembers being small
Playing under the table and dreaming
One of the most venerable DMB songs, the band started performing an early version of this song soon after they formed in 1991. Originally, it was known as "No New Directions."
The song quickly became a crowd favorite, and when the band issued their first album, the 1993 independent release Remember Two Things, they included a live version of this song. A studio version appeared on their major-label debut, Under The Table And Dreaming, in 1994.
Dave Matthews is the sole composer on this track, but it's one that shows off the band very well, lending itself to the live shows. Matthews refers to the song as their "anthem."
In 1995, Matthews started letting the crowd sing the line, "People in every direction."
In America, this song was issued to radio stations as a promotional single, but it wasn't made available for sale. This made it ineligible for the Hot 100, but the song did very well on radio, especially on the East Coast.
The first DMB single was "What Would You Say," which got substantial airplay in the summer of 1995. "Ants Marching" was pushed to radio months later in an effort to keep them from getting overplayed. The ploy worked, and in November 1995, the song reached its peak position of #21 on the Airplay chart - four years after they first started playing it live.
On April 15, 1995, the band performed this on Saturday Night Live when they appeared on the show for the first time (host: Courteney Cox).
The music video, directed by David Hogan ("What Would You Say
"), was shot entirely in New York City. The image of the boy underneath a table was not only a nod to the song's lyrics, but was taken from Hogan's own childhood. "I remember hiding under the table and licking my finger and eating the sugar that was on top of the table," he explained in a Songfacts interview
Future Grey's Anatomy
star Justin Chambers makes a cameo appearance in the video.
This was used on The Office in the 2011 episode "Ultimatum." It was also featured on three episodes of Community in 2014: "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics," "Basic Story," and "Basic Sandwich."
Since 2007, Rashawn Ross, the band's trumpeter, has interpolated "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" by The Jacksons in most performances of the song.