By Ari Gabriel
NOTE: The title in a previous version of this article erroneously suggested this album was ‘new’. The article has been amended to reflect the album’s original release in 1987.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ folk album “We Shall Overcome” (1987) is not an act of musical genius. The tracklist of five songs contributes nothing profound or noteworthy to either the medium or the genre of folk music. In fact, Sanders’ album is remarkably unkind to the ears but it does provide a musical and easy-to-follow chronology of his personal views early in his political career worth listening to.
The first song on “We Shall Overcome,” titled “Oh Freedom,” showcases Sanders’ retelling of the fight for social, racial and economic equality in America through spoken word and by weaving his social commentary throughout the song creating a musical patchwork: as the music fades out a Sanders soliloquy on freedom will begin, and as he finishes his commentary the music will restart. While Sanders’ “Oh Freedom” is compelling, it lacks the cohesive structure one would generally associate with music. Sanders’ second song, “The Banks of Marble,” is a quintessentially Bernie song covering the economic disparities within American society and their impact. Bernie also reflects on his work with unions with great vocal flourish, or more aptly increased volume, almost turning his spoken word into something more. “The Banks of Marble” sounds remarkably like Sanders’ stump speeches from both the 2015 and current presidential primary races; in fact, the song would be almost indistinguishable from a Sanders stump speech if it were not for what sounds like royalty free music playing in the background. Sanders’ third song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is a mess, mixing folk, reggae, and gospel to create a cacophony of uncomplimentary sounds. But, regardless of its musical complexity, it is an antiwar anthem and the views Sander’s espouses in the song have been echoed throughout the entirety of his career.
Sanders’ fourth song, “This Land is Your Land,” talks about the vast beauty of the American outdoors. A variation of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” it adds a spoken word element to the original composition that arguably detracts from the simplistic beauty of the original piece. The song, however, is still a refreshing change of pace from the other policy heavy songs on the album. The album’s titular and final song, “We Shall Overcome,” begins with speech by Sanders, unaccompanied by music, in which he talks about the current issues facing the American people — climate change, political apathy and economic inequality to name a few. The second part of “We Shall Overcome” is a mix between gospel music and folk as the unaltered protest song “We Shall Overcome” is sung by other Vermont artists free of Sanders’ spoken word. It is also a call to action that is just as poignant today as it was in 1987, addressing the issues at the center of the current presidential race.
Although “We Shall Overcome” is a painfully bad folk album, it provides backing for many of Sanders’ claims that he has been consistent in his political views throughout the entirety of his career. “We Shall Overcome” hit Vermont radio waves during Sanders’ term as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and sounds almost indistinguishable from his debate current debate performance. So, if you either want to know more about Bernie Sanders roots or are looking to vote for Sanders in 2020, Bernie’s folk debut it worth your time.
Contact Ari Gabriel at arijgab ‘at’ stanford.edu.