Before the run for the presidency, before the gigantic rallies with Vampire Weekend and the fiery stump speeches about income inequality, longtime Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders teamed up with more than two dozen Vermont musicians to release a 5-song album of classic folk songs.
We Shall Overcome was recorded in a Burlington studio in 1987, and according to a “Behind the Music” report by NPR, the story behind the record is one of the stranger aspects of Sanders’s now no longer long-shot campaign for president.
“We had this intriguing mayor, a guy who was absolutely on a mission with everything he did,” music producer Todd Lockwood told NPR. “He was charismatic and had a powerful public image. But people didn’t really know that much about what his personal life was like. So I thought, well, here’s an opportunity to see the man behind the curtain.”
There was just one problem, according to Lockwood: Sanders can’t really sing.
‘”That became pretty apparent right off the bat,” he told NPR. “You know, there are certain tricks you can do to correct people’s pitch being off and stuff, but I was going, ‘This is not really the road we want to go down.'”
To remedy the situation, the album’s producers decided Sanders would just speak over the tracks to make a kind-of spoken-word folk potpourri.
“The idea was if Bernie can’t sing, he’ll recite it,” one of the album’s principals, Dick McCormack, recalled in a lengthy oral history of the album’s genesis compiled by James Napoli. “And if he can’t recite eloquently, because he’s got that heavy Brooklyn accent, then he would bring to it what he had.”
The album ultimately included five classic covers–“We Shall Overcome,” “Oh, Freedom,” “The Banks of Marble,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “This Land is Your Land”–with Sanders simply doing his thing over each of the tracks.
Of course, the album was recorded roughly three decades before Sanders would run for president. The now-74-year-old Independent Senator from Vermont told NBC’s Lester Holt last week that voters probably shouldn’t judge his readiness for the country’s top job based on his musical ability.
“If people are thinking of voting for me for my musical capabilities — not the right reason,” Sanders said. “I have other attributes. Carrying a tune is not one of them.”
Check out “We Shall Overcome” from the album above.