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.

Contributor

Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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