Bernie Sanders' Folk Album: A Reason Musical Review

The presidential contender overcomes tone-deafness and a lack of rhythm in Vermont's answer to "We Are the World."


In 1987, then-Burlington, VT Mayor Bernie Sanders

Can I take it to the bridge?

participated in the Green Mountain State's answer to Michael Jackson's "We Are the World": a five-song EP called We Shall Overcome.

The project was the brainchild of local recording studio owner Todd Lockwood, an early Bernie-booster who thought pairing the socialist city executive with 30 local musicians would be a good way to build buzz for his business. 

Mark Davis of the Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days writes:

Sanders gave Lockwood a list of songs, mostly from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he would be willing to record.

The plan was for Sanders to sing relatively straightforward renditions of a handful of them. And that apparently seemed like a good idea to everyone. Until Sanders stepped into the recording booth for the first time.

"As talented of a guy as he is, he has absolutely not one musical bone in his body, and that became painfully obvious from the get-go," Lockwood said. "This is a guy who couldn't even tap his foot to music coming over the radio. No sense of melody. No sense of rhythm — the rhythm part surprised me, because he has good rhythm when he's delivering a speech in public."

So they had to come up with a plan B. Lockwood decided to turn the event into a "We Are The World"-style recording session: He called in a couple dozen Vermont musicians to serve as backup singers, while Bernie more or less read/preached the key lyrics with as much rhythm as he could muster.

Though the Democratic presidential contender has since called his particpation in the record a "big mistake," he has also demonstrated a decent sense of humor about the inevitable re-emergence of his musical star turn. 

Check out Reason's track-by-track review of this once-lost musical treasure after the jump.

On "Oh Freedom," adequate if uninspiring studio musicians amble through a few bars of the post-Civil War African-American spiritual, when the track's swinging country-folk-gospel exuberance abruptly gives way to a somber Sanders' delivering a monologue over an extended musical bridge:

For thousands of years in every nation on this Earth,

men and women have put their lives on the line,

believing that freedom and human dignity were more important than life itself.

Sanders shouts out to Spartacus (in a Brooklyn accent thicker than Tony Curtis') and Harriet Tubman before concluding hopefully, "The human spirit, may it never be extinguished," which launches the band back to the rollicking chorus. 

On the second number, "The Banks of Marble," Sanders attempts to deliver his prose in sync with the music but gives up after two lines before segueing into a rap about income inequality that could have been recorded at a Sanders 2016 rally yesterday:

The rich get richer

Traveling about in their chauffeured limousines

And jet-setting around the world to their exotic vacation places

And the poor get poorer

Unfortunately, "Banks" lacks the brevity of the previous track, and Bernie's spiel extends to more than 50% of the tune's five-minute-plus run time. However, the next cut, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" features Bernie in full-on righteous anger mode, befitting an anti-war song backed by a funeral dirge accompaniment:


The human disease which has plagued mankind forever!

Sticks and stones, spears and knives, guns and cannonballs,

tanks and planes, bombs and missiles,

nerve gas, nuclear weapons, laserbeams.

When will they ever learn?

Bernie's peacenik rant is arguably the most effective use of his plainspoken, unintentionally comic guttural delivery, though its effect is significantly diminished by a male vocalist (who audibly resembles an Air Supply cover band crooner) popping into the song at around the 1:30 mark. The singer's very 80s power ballad affectation saps the song of the reflective rage evoked by Sanders' spoken word intro.

Track four's cover of the Woody Guthrie classic "This Land is Your Land" is the closest Sanders ever comes to an actual attempt at singing (you can close your eyes and imagine him bopping his head to the lumbering beat) even if he sounds like he's doing a Larry David impression (rather than the other way around). "Land" also happens to be the most dance-able selection on the EP, with an inexplicable reggae beat running underneath the more familiar country-folk arrangement. 

Finally, the album concludes with the title track, "We Shall Overcome," featuring Sanders delivering an a capella speech about how "depressing" the world is with its corruption, environmental degradation, consumerism and manipulation by the mass media.

Around 90 seconds in, tinkly piano notes emerge from the background, before Bernie signs off with "There will be peace! There will be justice! There will be human [pronounced yoo-mun] brotherhood!," which is naturally followed by 5 minutes of Vermont session musicians earnestly performing the signature song of the civil rights era.

Examining this record nearly 30 years later, what's most remarkable is how Sanders appears impervious to the influences of time. His voice and speaking cadence of 1987 are nearly identical to the present day, and his passion for peace and freedom remain admirably staunch, even if his simplistic utopian economic views remain trapped in the Dust Bowl.

I can't say I recommend spending the $4.95 this collection will set you back on iTunes, but if you're a completist type, you might want to lock down your digital copy of We Shall Overcome should Bernie's presidential aspirations fall short and he sets off on a career as a William Shatner-style performance artist.