Bernie Sanders' 1987 album We Shall Overcome is so bad, it's good

It sounds like Woody Allen doing Woody Guthrie as This Land is Your Land gets a reggae beat – but if William Shatner can make cult records, why not Bernie?

Bernie Sanders always says that everyone should have a voice in the political conversation. But should they also have a voice in the recording studio?

Apparently, he believes so, because back in 1987, the Democratic hopeful went into a small studio in Vermont to cut an album of his own, undaunted by the fact that, according to the project’s own producer, “Bernie’s not a singer.”

In an oral history of the album’s sessions, Tony Lockwood admitted that Sanders “is not musically inclined, But I didn’t see that as a problem. In fact, I saw it as an opportunity.”

It’s been a golden one for late night comics, three decades removed. This week, Jimmy Fallon played a choice snippet of Sanders’s hallucinogenically bad album, We Shall Overcome, during his “Do not play” segment, which stands in awe of awful recordings.

“I’m not joking,” Fallon said, his eyes widening. “This is real.”

Certainly, it’s a real representation of Sanders’s political beliefs. Side one of the album (remember album sides?) features the oldest war horses of the civil rights movement: We Shall Overcome, This Land Is Your Land and Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Side two lets Sanders pontificate, a capella.

The way Sanders talks through the songs makes Rex Harrison sound like Pavarotti. But it’s not the tone deaf delivery which transfixes the listener. It’s the accent. If Woody Allen sang Woody Guthrie songs, they’d sound like this. There’s less dust bowl in these grooves than borscht belt. Meanwhile, the arrangement of This Land Is Your Land features a reggae beat as only a pick-up band in Vermont could render it.

It’s not impossible that the newly unearthed Sanders recording could become a camp hit. William Shatner’s gorgeously bad 60s talk-songs went on to become cult staples after David Letterman’s show mooned over them in the 80s. Likewise, in 1967, a singing comic named Bill Minkin scored a top 20 hit with a satire of the Troggs’ classic Wild Thing, featuring his vocal impersonations of senators Bobby Kennedy and Everett Dirksen.

More contemporaneously, Barack Obama sings for real – and well. He has never dared enter a studio to warble, though he won a Grammy in 2008 for Best Spoken Word album, for his reading of his book The Audacity of Hope.

In its own way, Sanders’ old recording was a hit. Of the thousand copies made, 800 sold. Lockwood reports in his oral history that he hoped the music would get the politician a shot on Letterman. “Oh God,” Sanders told him. “I hate Dave Letterman.”

Given all the heat on Sanders today, backup singer Howard Mitchell noted in the oral history that “there’ll be people using it to try to make Bernie look silly, and there’ll be people using it to show how authentic he is. Who knows where the final judgment will fall?”

It doesn’t get more democratic than that.


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jay Farrar continues Woody Guthrie album series

News: The singer-songwriter will record the third Mermaid Avenue collection, which features unpublished lyrics and unreleased songs by the legendary folk musician

Sean Michaels

18, Sep, 2009 @10:39 AM

Article image
Woody Guthrie at 100: the return of a pariah | Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg: Woody Guthrie was shunned by his home state. Now Oklahoma can finally embrace the singer-songwriter's work

Billy Bragg in Tulsa, Oklahoma

12, Jul, 2012 @8:30 PM

Article image
Killer Mike interviews Democrat Bernie Sanders on YouTube
The Run the Jewels rapper consolidates his support for Democrat presidential candidate in a series of YouTube videos

Guardian music

16, Dec, 2015 @12:19 PM

Article image
Rapper Killer Mike endorses Bernie Sanders for president after Atlanta tour
Rapper takes Democratic candidate out for fried chicken and yams in his hometown before delivering enthusiastic endorsement speech at campaign rally

Amanda Holpuch in New York

24, Nov, 2015 @4:14 PM

Article image
Killer Mike endorses Bernie Sanders for president
The Run the Jewels rapper announced his support via Twitter after the Democratic candidate backed full reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act

Amanda Holpuch in New York

29, Jun, 2015 @8:12 PM

Article image
Sonic Youth vote: Thurston Moore and Bernie Sanders collaborate on new song
Feel It in Your Guts free in return for a contribution to the Democrat hopeful’s campaign, with label Joyful Noise Recordings suggesting donation of $27

Guardian music

02, Jun, 2016 @9:38 AM

Article image
Bernie Sanders has a problem: sometimes greed is good
Put human beings in close proximity to money, and it’s inevitable that the greed impulse will flare out of control. The question is: what do we do about it?

Suzanne McGee

07, Jan, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Neil Young endorses Bernie Sanders: 'Every point he makes is what I believe in'
Singer says senator is the ‘Real Deal’ who offers the big changes needed to beat Trump

Naaman Zhou

10, Mar, 2020 @12:16 AM

Article image
Bernie Sanders stresses 'common good' in Vatican attack on capitalism
Democratic candidate launches sweeping indictment of economic system and praises Catholic church’s ‘depth and insight’ on market economy

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Vatican City

15, Apr, 2016 @2:44 PM

Article image
The cold, hard truth: it's game over for Bernie Sanders | Richard Wolffe
Like Clinton in 2008, Sanders refuses to accept the reality of defeat. In contrast, Hillary now has her eyes on the prize, and a ruthless Republican opponent

Richard Wolffe

02, Mar, 2016 @7:39 AM