It’s one of those pop-culture artifacts too bizarre to be fabricated: a 1987 album of folk standards performed by senator and current presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, back when he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Credited to “Bernie Sanders And 30 Vermont Artists” and originally released only on cassette in a limited run of 1,000 copies, We Shall Overcome features earnest renditions of such standards as “This Land Is Your Land,” with the politician reciting the lyrics in his thick Brooklyn accent, accompanied by a bevy of local musicians and even a choir. Over at his Atavist blog, James Napoli has compiled an affectionate and informative history of how the strange album came into being, soliciting numerous quotes from the singers and musicians who took part in the newly relevant recording.
The idea for We Shall Overcome started not with Sanders but with Todd Lockwood, a businessman who owned both a recording studio and a record label in Burlington. In April 1987, Lockwood wanted to capitalize on the Sanders’ local popularity and sent a letter outlining the proposed album to city hall. Amazingly, Sanders took the bait and said he wanted to record something in the tradition of his own personal musical heroes, leftist folkies like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. “I have to admit to you,” Sanders told Lockwood at the time, “this appeals to my ego.” By all accounts, Sanders had no musical talent whatsoever, so Lockwood compensated by recruiting plenty of talented musicians and singers to cover for him. The idea of having Sanders simply recite the lyrics was inspired by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Interestingly, though it goes unmentioned here, a popular Watergate-era senator named Sam Ervin attempted something similar back in the 1970s. Unusual as the project was, the recording of We Shall Overcome went fairly smoothly, and Sanders got along well with the musicians and singers at the session. The resulting album was regionally semi-popular but was largely treated as a novelty item at the time of its release. Now, however, We Shall Overcome is once again in demand and has been reissued on CD. Lockwood remains proud of his creation and his association with the politician. As he tells Napoli in the piece,
This is still a really relevant project, maybe even more relevant to the times that we’re in now. And it illustrates that Bernie’s attitude on the issues that interest him has not changed one degree after all these years.