I Listened To Bernie Sanders' 1987 Spoken Word Album, And Here's What I Learned
It's safe to say that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is not your typical presidential candidate. He's driven a snow plow through the streets of Burlington, he announced his bid for the presidency in front of a water park, and he's earned a reputation for his ability to fearlessly speak the truth. Well as it turns out, Sanders can do more than just speak the truth: He can also recite it in poems to bright, rhythmic background music. In 1987, while the candidate was Mayor of Burlington, he dabbled a bit in the recording studio with local artist Todd Lockwood, and the result was We Shall Overcome, a five-track spoken word album.
Whether you're one of Sanders' many critics or his many fans, the album is probably something you'd love to hear. Just imagine his heavy Brooklyn accent blaring as he recites his own version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" or chants the chorus of Pete Seeger's classic "Banks of Marble." Basically, imagine the least lyrical man you could think of attempting to carry a tune! It's comical, to say the least, and should you purchase the album, available via the Apple Store, you'd certainly have yourself a laugh or two.
But there's also plenty to learn about the candidate from each track. The unglamorous, unedited nature of Sanders' recordings reflect his unpolished but wholesome, authentic nature as a politician. The progressive darling truly unleashed his inner muse, and there's so much to take away from each of the five tracks.
Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
The recording opens with the post-Civil War African-American freedom song, recorded by black artist Odetta during the Civil Rights movement and performed by Joan Baez during the March on Washington. Sanders himself doesn't jump in until roughly 45 seconds into the track, but without delay, he challenges us to question our perceptions of "freedom and human dignity" — are they more important than life itself? He goes on to give us a TL;DR of the stories of Spartacus and Harriet Tubman and their brave fights against slavery. Then he characteristically eases into a discussion of unions, fair wages, standing up to big banks, and economic equality. Before long, he expounds upon the resilience of the human spirit with the image of a torch being passed from one nation to another, all while upbeat, gospel-like music sounds lightly in the background.
Sanders has a long history of presenting racial and economic injustice hand-in-hand — a weakness he's been recently confronted about, and has certainly improved on. It's a little problematic that the candidate discusses slavery as an ancient, historical issue, as if racism is entirely a thing of the past that was removed from society along with slavery. It almost feels like he's that implying economic inequality is the only remaining problem in modern society. But at the same time, Sanders challenges the right-wing understanding of the word "freedom" and its ultimate role in conservative economic principles, as he sounds off on the virtue of unions and the tyranny of corporate greed. He closes with genuinely moving lines on the universal power of humans uniting to fight for freedom.
"The Banks Of Marble"
The track opens with what sounds like the upbeat chords of a contemporary gospel song, but the gentle introduction is quickly followed by Sanders' hard-hitting Brooklyn accent, as he declares that the banks are indeed made of marble.
After reciting a couple of lines from the 1962 Seeger classic, Sanders pronounces the words, "throughout most of human history," but before you check out, expecting a boring history lecture, wait around for a minute. You'll find in this one track what Sanders is essentially saying in each of his speeches: The rich are getting richer, the gap between the rich and poor is unreasonable, etc., etc. But he also lyrically presents us with an image of the lifestyles of the top one percent: "exotic" vacation places, limousine rides, labor exploitation, and the like. He juxtaposes this image with the issue of homelessness — both around the world and in America — and busts the common right-wing myth that those in poverty could have worked harder:
Sanders then recounts the inequality he's personally seen while traveling from "shore to shore" in the States. This segment of the track includes some creative rhyming that wouldn't have been possible without his accent. The message Bernie provides in this track isn't a new one, if you've listened to literally any of his speeches. But what you can take away from "Banks of Marble" is the depth and color of the candidate's passion for economic justice. Deep feeling underlies his every line, and his choice to set his spoken word to the 1950s workers' rights anthem is hardly a coincidence.
"Where Have All The Flowers Gone"
A few seconds of a sober drum beat, and Sanders is off, immediately opening his anti-war piece by demanding, "Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing? Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?" He then demands, "When will they ever learn?" and I imagine that by "they," he means the government. Considering how Sanders' activism is rooted in the movements of the counterculture that initially rose to protest the Vietnam War, it's likely that the track is lamenting the rampant death and destruction that resulted from that war.
"War, a human disease, has plagued mankind forever," he proclaims, before listing off all kinds of weapons: guns, spears, "laser beams," nuclear weapons, and more. Next, after an interlude of actual music, Sanders lists off all the different wars that the United States has been involved in — and refreshingly includes our country's historically ignored wars on "Africans" and "Native Americans."
Sanders notably voted against the Iraq War, and currently supports the Iran Deal out of strong belief that it is the only way to prevent another war in the Middle East. Sanders was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War back in the day and has long lobbied for increased rights for veterans. This third track makes his stance on war even clearer.
"This Land Is Your Land"
Sanders is trying to share a beautiful message here, but to be honest, it's not easy to listen through his first lines. You wonder if he's trying to sing, rap, or simply recite a poem. But in any case, the image he presents of himself taking a peaceful nature walk is more than a little comical. "This land was made for you and me," he finally states, before an original recording of the song sounds. This piece could easily act as the anthem of his campaign, which he claims is rooted in the idea of the American people uniting to take what's theirs back from the billionaire class.
At about three minutes, the fourth track is his shortest. Throughout most of those three minutes, it repeats the song's chorus or Sanders' own vivid descriptions of scenes from nature. But it does an interesting job of developing a pioneering, earthy sort of populism. The success of his campaign is famously rooted in grassroots activism. To me, this track perfectly captures the essence of this: People across the country, in every walk of life, uniting to proclaim "this land is [their] land."
"We Shall Overcome"
Finally, the album's final, eponymous track. Unlike the other four, this one doesn't open with cheerful instrumentals. Instead, it opens with Sanders plainly declaring that "the world ... is an extremely depressing place." If that's not a downbeat way to start things out, then frankly, I don't know what is.
But then he makes a good point: The world is a depressing place, and "it's wrong" to deny this. Recognizing and identifying problems in society will always be the first step in fixing them — a concept Sanders is clearly familiar with, as he demonstrates in his fiery speeches about economic inequality, mass incarceration, and structural racism. Sanders touches on all of these points in the track, but he also acknowledges "environmental degradation" and the shortcomings of the "mass media," which, almost three decades later, are even more divisive issues than they were in the '80s.
At first, it's difficult to discern what the ultimate point is, but just after the one-minute mark, Sanders references the Civil Rights movement to make it clear. There is nothing human beings united for a cause cannot overcome — not bigots, not unjust government, really not anything. This is the main point of his campaign: Change of all sorts is possible when people gather to overcome something, no matter how large or powerful it is.
At any rate, here's a gentle warning that there's not even background music until about a minute in, and that by the time the beautiful chorus of the actual song "We Shall Overcome" begins to play, it's accompanied by Bernie occasionally pitching in "hand-in-hand!" or "we shall live in peace!" or adding something else to the mix.
Ultimately, what this album really proves is that, even if Bernie's lack of inhibition is considered a weakness, he has no intention of changing who he is. He'll never be able to be the typical detached, lax politician whose views are a mere reflection of popular opinion of their party. Sanders makes his passion for equality clear in each track, in case the fact that he literally recorded an album to espouse the virtues of grassroots activism and populism didn't drive that point home from the get-go. Next to his more polished and rehearsed rivals for the presidency, he's quirky and eccentric, to say the least. But simultaneously, he brings something refreshing and even a little artistic to the table, as this album so perfectly demonstrates.