Jon Gailmor: In 1981, when Bernie ran for mayor of Burlington, I participated in a benefit concert for him at Edmunds Middle School. Ten people showed up. And then Bernie won the election by ten votes. I’ve never let him hear the end of it.
Julie Davis: The establishment in Burlington at the time, including the media and many of the radio stations, would rarely cover anything positive about Bernie and other progressive candidates. They would go out of their way to denigrate them. It took a lot of hard work—and a few miracles—to re-elect these candidates. We bypassed the mainstream media by sending out an army of supporters door-to-door with substance-driven leaflets to get our message to the people.
Don Sidney: We all moved to Vermont in the hopes that we could create a place where we could have a fair life and pursue our art. We were very proud that Bernie became mayor of the city. It was great to see this new world opening up, politically and socially.
Jon Gailmor: It didn’t take long for Bernie to start turning heads—and not just left-wing heads, either. He was appealing to people all over the political spectrum.
Julie Davis: After Bernie’s first four years in office things started turning around. He was becoming more popular, the city was starting to spruce up, and people were enjoying the benefits of the new administration. People were hearing his message—and liking it.
Danny Coane: Bernie had broken the old Democratic machine in Burlington and he became popular with young people.
Mark Ransom: The great thing about Vermont politicians is that they tend to be locals that you know on a personal level. They’re not inaccessible and wearing fancy suits, they’re just walking the streets. Bernie made more of an effort at that than anybody.
Michael Oakland: Bernie was always one of those strangely charismatic people. He used to walk around town with a certain kind of gait in his walk and he always had an entourage with him.
Joe Moore: Bernie would walk around on Church Street. Every time I saw him he was looking down, like he was thinking. I didn’t want to interrupt his thought because it looked like he was thinking about something important. He hardly ever looked up. If he did, you’d say hi and he’d say hi—and then he’d be gone. He didn’t have time for small talk. I also lived about a mile from his house in the North End and we would shop at the same grocery store. He’d come in and get food just like everybody else. People would stop and say hello to him, but he didn’t talk long. That’s just the way he was.
Nancy Beaven: I remember looking outside my window on Loomis Street and there was Bernie, planting trees for Arbor Day. He’s out there. He’s picking up trash. He’s talking to people about their needs.
Emily Wadhams: Bernie was a pretty radical guy in his politics, but he was also somebody who got things done. He was very well-supported by the artists and the music community in Burlington, and he supported them as well.
Tom Walters: The town really wasn’t that cool before Bernie took office. It felt like a rundown mill town. The waterfront was very industrial—just factories and rusted tanks. Bernie helped create an environment in which the arts could thrive. When downtown came back to life, many live venues became active and, since there were lots of venues to play in, lots of bands sprouted up.
Howard Mitchell: Bernie changed the city. He made the arts the focus of Burlington. He convinced a lot of building owners to rent out their space to artists and they transformed Pine Street into this whole artist colony. It’s still there today.
Julie Davis: The Pine Street Arts and Business Association started under Bernie’s leadership and helped transform a dilapidated industrial area with lots of vacant buildings into a thriving arts district. Formed as a counterpart to the oppositional business community, the association built on the creative work that Todd Lockwood and many others were already doing along Pine Street. It eventually evolved into the very popular South End Art Hop, which now sees visitors at hundreds of businesses and art venues in the South End.
Jon Gailmor: I wrote a mini song about how Burlington changed when Bernie became mayor. It’s called “The Blooming of Burlington” and it’s a tiny piece I wrote because I just felt like I needed to write something. The town was undergoing a total renaissance—you could feel the change. It’s been blossoming and blooming ever since.
Todd Lockwood: Here I was with this world-class recording studio called White Crow Audio. I started the studio in a carriage house where I was living at the time. Within four years, White Crow had grown enough to relocate to a 10,000 square foot warehouse in the artsy Pine Street neighborhood. Before long, we started to attract national clients, including Phish, Alice Cooper, Dinosaur Jr., and Odetta—a broad musical range. In terms of equipment, the studio was up with the best of them in New York City.
Jon Gailmor: White Crow Audio was the most well-endowed studio in the area. It was a pretty amazing place, beautiful and state-of-the-art—especially for back then. It was in a pretty unlikely locale, down among the warehouses and convenience stores off Pine Street.
Joe Moore: The studio was really good. Everybody wanted to work in it.
Mark Ransom: As a musician, I was in Todd’s studio a lot. He had a really nice setup with beautiful equipment. It was the only place in Burlington that had equipment like that. It was always fun to be in there.
Tom Walters: There were a few other studios in the area and we were pretty expensive, so we were trying to get major label projects. Todd’s business plan was to sell Burlington along with his studio, meaning that you can come up from New York City and it will be cheaper—but it will still be great—and, on top of that, we’ve got this great town that you can explore in your downtime.
Todd Lockwood: Bands weren’t making any kind of compromise by coming up here. In fact, they were probably going to save money. But the thing about the studio business is, it’s feast or famine. You’re either booked solid or you’re twiddling your thumbs.
We had some downtime and I had staff sitting there, so I decided to start a local record label called BurlingTown. The label produced a smattering of local projects with the goal of selling copies to the public. We recorded the N-Zones, a terrific Buddy Holly-style rock dance band. We did an album with Nancy Beaven. We even released a classical music album with pianist Elaine Greenfield. At our peak, we were selling through 25 retail stores around Chittenden County and as far south as Rutland. I’d drive my Volkswagen van around the area and do the restocking myself.
When we moved into the bigger studio space I had much greater recording capability, so I started dreaming up projects with a little bit more scope to them. One morning, while having coffee at Leunig’s Café, I had this crazy idea: What would happen if I got Bernie Sanders in the studio and put a band behind him?
When I got to the studio later that morning, I sat down with my studio manager and staff engineer to talk it through. Of course, we had no idea whether Bernie was musical or not at that point. It just seemed like such an outrageously cool thing to attempt because he was quite an iconic figure as mayor of Burlington. The guy was so intriguing—he was absolutely on a mission with everything that he did. He had a lot of charisma and a very powerful public image, but people didn’t really know all that much about what he was like as a private individual. He kept his private life very private.
The original letter that I sent to Bernie about the project was eventually excerpted on the album packaging.
Todd Lockwood: I mailed the letter to city hall. I didn’t know Bernie personally, so he was receiving this letter cold. Two days later, my phone rang. It was his secretary calling to say, “The mayor would like to meet with you.”
When I went to meet with Bernie, the very first thing he said was, “Let me just say right upfront, I have to admit to you, this appeals to my ego.” That was really quite honest. I liked him already. Then I said, “OK, if you’re into it, we’re thinking music here. And we’re thinking maybe we’ll have you pick a list of your favorite songs, whatever those happen to be.” I had no idea what he would choose, but when he came up with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and so on, it made perfect sense—of course he would choose that stuff. He came up with a list of ten songs and we whittled it down to five.
Howard Mitchell: This project was very much outside of Bernie’s box—at least that was the general perception. Todd tends to think outside the box and he was very much a pro-Bernie guy, so Bernie’s politics together with Todd’s musical and historic perspective were a good combination. When Todd proposed that Bernie record songs that were influential to him in his life, I think Bernie saw it as a unique opportunity to express his political views through music.
Todd Lockwood: There was a little bit of back and forth with Bernie, but it became clear, even in that first meeting, that he saw this project as an opportunity to tell a much bigger story than the one that I had originally imagined. I was largely motivated by the fact that we didn’t know much about his life and I thought it would be interesting to fill in the blanks for his local public.
Nancy Beaven: The keystone to the project is Todd being of that mind and being that creative to say, “Why not? Let’s do this.” And it’s only in a place like Burlington, which was such a fertile creative spot at the time, that this could happen.
Todd Lockwood: I brought in a local guitar player named Don Sidney to be the musical arranger. His role was to take these old folk songs and give them an update with more contemporary rhythms and sounds. Don also helped choose the musicians.
Don Sidney: Todd contacted me while I was on the road during the summer of ’87. When I got back in the fall we started acting on the project. I remember going to a couple meetings with Todd at the mayor’s office to talk with Bernie about the tunes he wanted to do and how the structure of the thing would go. Then I was left to work out the musical arrangements and put the band together. I got Jeff Salisbury to play drums, Mark Ransom on bass, Tom Berd on organ, and Andy Shapiro on piano. I’d played with those guys for years. They were all good friends and good players.
Mark Ranson: Don and I were in a band called the N-Zones. We had already recorded a whole album in Todd’s studio and released it on BurlingTown Records.
Jeff Salisbury: From a musical standpoint, it was an advantage that we all knew each other and played together previously. We had certain feels that we were familiar playing and we tried to find some more modern takes, or at least different interpretations, for the songs. Because these were songs from the labor movement, Woody Guthrie songs, we needed to do something to make them appeal to the modern ear.
Mark Ransom: Don had some specific ideas for how to structure the songs. One of them is reggae style, one of them is gospel style. Don thought about the musical arrangements first and then we hashed them around.
Don Sidney: I thought it would be nice to try to change it up a little bit. All the other groups at the time were doing the reggae thing—that seemed to be a popular fallback in the 80s.
Todd Lockwood: I loved what Don came up with. The rhythm for “The Banks of Marble” was just awesome, not to mention the reggae beat of “This Land is Your Land.” “This Land” has clearly become the iconic song of the album.
Tom Walters: We did a lot of the pre-production right in the studio. It was sort of made up as we went along, which is not altogether uncommon, particularly with professional musicians.
Todd Lockwood: Before Bernie came into the studio, we tried three different versions of “This Land Is Your Land”—country, zydeco, and reggae—to see which one sounded best. The style of reggae that Don and the band devised was unique, so we dubbed it “reggie.” The original song list also included “Guantanamera” and “Give Peace A Chance,” both of which were later dropped. We added “Oh Freedom” and “The Banks of Marble.”
The musicians did some rough demo versions of the five songs. We had somebody else standing in for Bernie as a vocalist just for the sake of getting the music right. Then I gave Bernie those rough demos to play with on his own, on his cassette recorder. That’s when he started to figure out the timing and how many seconds he had to fit in his words. I was totally open to anything he came up with, but I said to him, “If I feel like it’s really not working I’ll let you know, because we have other options.” Bernie said, “Yeah, I’ll take a crack at it.”
So I got Bernie in the studio to see what his capabilities were. I didn’t have any idea whether he was musical or not. It was pretty obvious right off the bat that he was not going to be singing. Bernie’s not a singer—that’s all there is to it. He’s not musically inclined. But I didn’t see that as a problem. In fact, I saw it as an opportunity. So we shifted into more of a talking blues approach—talking the lyrics, along the lines of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. We called it “folk-rap.”
Dick McCormack: The idea was if Bernie can’t sing, he’ll recite it. And if he can’t recite eloquently, because he’s got that heavy Brooklyn accent, then he would bring to it what he had.
Don Sidney: Bernie had no desire to sing. It ended up that what he would do is a monologue about what the song meant to him.
Todd Lockwood: Once we got the roughs done and figured out how Bernie was going to contribute to the recording, I put the word out to the local music community: “Hey, we’re doing this cool project with Bernie Sanders and we’re looking for vocalists to be in our chorus.” We were consciously thinking about Michael Jackson’s “We are the World” project, which was an iconic session at the time. The opportunity to do something important and meaningful, which isn’t always the case when you’re just playing gigs to entertain people, doesn’t come up that often.
Dick McCormack: That was actually mentioned—we’re going to do our own version of “We are the World” with Bernie Sanders. I suppose it was a little bit puffed up on our part.
Todd Lockwood: Within a few days we had 20 people that absolutely wanted to be a part of it. They were of all stripes, too. Some were lead singers from local rock bands, others were folk singers, some were choral singers. I’d worked with quite a few of these musicians in the studio before.
Michael Oakland: Todd Lockwood and I were friends and had already done a couple of projects together. He asked me to be involved and we started to corral all the cats to see if we could get everybody on the same page. Everybody was on it right away because Bernie was so dearly beloved in Burlington.
Jon Gailmor: For a lot of us who were involved in the project, we were craving somebody to believe in. The session was a way to get personally involved with Bernie—not just watching him on TV or listening to him on talk shows, but actually being involved in a project of his. It meant a lot to all of us and you could see how thrilled he was with the project, too.
Nancy Beaven: Todd just called me up and said, “Nancy, we’re doing this Bernie recording.” I was already in Todd’s BurlingTown Records stable, so I guess that was why I was selected for the album. Before Bernie ran for mayor he would do these different things for Liberty Union and I was drafted to do some of those benefits, so I was pretty excited to do the album.
Don Sidney: I performed with some people at Bread and Puppet Theater when Bernie was running with the Liberty Union Party back in the 70s. We had a little jug band that would play at these events to help get the word out there.
Jeff Salisbury: We had a band called the Don Sidney Band with Joanne Cooper, Dana Lavigne, Mark Ransom, Don Sidney, and myself, all of whom appeared on the Bernie album. So Don and I had been playing together since 1975, and when this project came up, it seemed like a good idea.
Michael Oakland: Don Sidney and the core instrumentalists were a prominent band in town at the time. We knew that if they were the core band for this album, everything was going to be fine.
Emily Wadhams: In the early 80s I was part of an a cappella group called The Chapped Lips and we had done some recording with Todd in his studio. I was singing with another group of people when Todd asked me if I’d be interested in the Bernie project. I said, “Sure! Why not?” I was more curious than anything else to see what was going to happen.
I was also involved with affordable housing work in Burlington and I was a supporter of Bernie, so he was not an unfamiliar person to me at all. I had never actively done anything with his campaigns before and just thought the recording session was a really interesting idea.
Howard Mitchell: I had recorded previously with Todd in my singing group, The Spinouts, so that’s how he knew about me. When he called me up and told me about the conversation he’d had with Bernie, I said, “Sure, I’d love to be a part of it.” It was an easy sell, as they say. I had canvassed a neighborhood when Bernie was running for mayor and went door-to-door in support of him. I’m certainly not a personal friend, but I’ve met him a couple times and I was just a supporter of his politics.
Danny Coane: I was in a band called the Throbulators at the time. We had played for Madeleine Kunin’s second inaugural ball—first rock band to ever play a governor’s inaugural ball in Vermont. 1987 was a major year for us because we were working on our album with Todd at White Crow and we were also contacted by TriStar Pictures to do a scene in this movie called Sweet Hearts Dance. It was shot in Hyde Park and Bernie actually has a little cameo part in it.
Joe Moore: I played a benefit for Bernie’s first mayoral candidacy. When I was called to do this album, it was a no-brainer to say yes. Though, at the time I was thinking that nothing was going to come of it.
Don Sidney: We were all connected in some way or another. That was the great thing about being a musician in Vermont—you really felt like you were a part of a community of people who were doing something and moving in the same direction.
Dick McCormack: We were a Who’s Who of Vermont musicians, which is to say, big fish in a very, very, very, very small pond.
Howard Mitchell: Todd really deserves a lot of credit for this album. If you’ve ever tried to get five people together to do something, you know how hard it is, logistically. Todd had a vision. He knew that there were enough people who really believed in Bernie and his message, and that he could really generate some energy with this idea. Thank God he had the studio and the equipment to make it happen!
Don Sidney: The band got in around one or two in the afternoon to rehearse and then it seemed like we didn’t start recording until probably nine or ten at night. It was late.
Emily Wadhams: The singers didn’t have any rehearsals beforehand. We just showed up. We had no idea what we were going to do until we walked into the studio.
Joe Moore: We got there in the afternoon, around five or six o’clock, and it went all the way till about one o’clock in the morning. It was a long session.
Nancy Beaven: I remember going to the studio on the day of the recording session. I was really tickled to see all the musicians who had been called in that day. There was a lot of good energy there.
Jon Gailmor: It was like a huge folk festival. We don’t get a chance to be together that often, because we’re all trying to cobble out a living and we’re touring and playing out at night. Very rarely do we get a chance to get together and make music—and that was the beauty of this session.
Tom Walters: It was a very festive atmosphere. Musicians often don’t see each other unless they’re working together, so it had the feeling of a class reunion, maybe our first one—we were all a lot younger back then.
Michael Oakland: In general, the musicians and singers were all well-educated people, musically. They knew, intuitively, where to go with this thing. We certainly didn’t have charts or any of that stuff.
Jon Gailmor: I don’t remember any rehearsals—these were all well-known standards. The producers basically told us to sing and harmonize and do whatever we wanted to do. Todd trusted our skill and our collective ear.
Howard Mitchell: Everybody who was there was a musician or a singer of some sort, and everybody realized that we had to show some restraint. We were all there to back up Bernie. Nobody went wild. We just played our best and made sure that we were playing in uniformity with everybody else. The album sounds like it was really rehearsed, but it wasn’t. It was a pretty amazing spontaneous creation.
Michael Oakland: There was a real urgency to do it, to have fun, to have a spirited event, and to get it done.
Howard Mitchell: When Bernie came in, he had this stuff already written up that he wanted to say and that’s what went onto his music stand. He wasn’t reading lyrics out of a song book, he was reading and speaking his own words.
Emily Wadhams: I assumed Bernie would sing and we would accompany him. It was a surprise to realize that he really couldn’t sing and that he was going to be talking. When I found that out, I was thinking, Well, what the heck is this going to be? He’s not Pete Seeger, he’s not Joan Baez. He’s going to be talking in his Brooklyn accent? Is this going to work?
Mark Ranson: He didn’t sound like anything from Vermont. He had such a thick Brooklyn accent. It almost seemed like a gimmick to me—listen to this guy talk!
Michael Oakland: Bernie was not uncomfortable in the studio, but he was a little bemused by being put in front of a microphone. I think he was just a slight bit nervous about it, having never done anything like that before. It was like, “Bernie, don’t worry. You don’t have to sing—we’ve got the vocals. Just be Bernie!”
Jeff Salisbury: Bernie is a political animal, but he’s not a singer. He’s a great speaker, and in that way it worked, with the community chorus backing him.
Howard Mitchell: Bernie was socializing the whole time we were in the studio. He was walking around and talking to people and shaking hands and patting people on the back, high-fiving and stuff like that. Then someone would have to go over to grab him and say, “OK, we’re ready for the next song,” and they’d bring him back into the recording booth.
Tom Walters: Bernie was in a separate soundproof room so that we could properly isolate his vocals.
Howard Mitchell: There was a coach in the recording booth with Bernie who would give the signal to speed up or slow down. “One, two, one, two—now you go!” Then Bernie would start speaking and they’d have to keep the baton going to keep him on the beat. There was a bit of a signaling game going on between the guy in the booth with Bernie and the leader of the band, because Bernie would talk the lyrics while all the musicians played on a straight 4/4 beat, and they’d always be waiting for him to come around and get to the end of his phrase.
Todd Lockwood: Bernie’s a very good public speaker and has a natural cadence when he speaks, but not necessarily when he’s reciting someone else’s phrasing. If it’s his own phrasing, he nails it every time. So to keep everything in the right place, musically, I had to give him a little assistance here and there. There were instances when I was right in the vocal booth with him, giving signals when it was time to deliver the next phrase.
I decided to try it a little differently on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I let him do the phrasing on the verse as he felt comfortable. You can hear on the recording that he drifts slightly away from the beat. It’s almost like he’s speaking in a different time signature than the rest of the music. Somehow it works, and it eventually all comes back together. I was going back and forth between wanting it to be natural sounding, but also wanting it to sound musically correct.
Todd Lockwood: When it came time to record the parts with the chorus, I actually set up the studio in a very similar fashion to “We are the World,” with risers for the singers to stand on. I hired a lighting company to light the studio so that when the two network TV affiliates came in, WCAX and WPTZ, they had this ridiculously perfect set up. I even gave them an audio feed right off my mixing console, so they had great audio exactly as it was going down live. My only regret is that I didn’t hire a video production company to shoot the session independently. These were the pre-Internet days, and we didn’t yet grasp the importance of video documentation.
Mark Ransom: Todd was definitely a media guy. Because Burlington was a small town, he could get coverage on everything. All the TV stations were there recording the studio session, which wouldn’t happen in some other city.
Don Sidney: When Bernie came in there was a media blitz. There was the local community access people and two or three other network affiliates. They were putting up lights and running around with cameras. All of a sudden it was lights, camera, action. It ended up being more like a live thing for the camera than a recording session, which I think threw some people off. The media recorded a few bits and pieces and then we were able to get back to work.
Todd Lockwood: WPTZ, the local NBC TV station, did a fantastic job covering the event. However, WCAX, the local CBS affiliate, was historically suspect about anything to do with Bernie. During the recording of “We Shall Overcome,” one of their cameramen snuck into the vocal booth while Bernie was in there with his headphones on. Just for the sake of the camera, Bernie sang along with the chorus but he was way off-key. WCAX captured that moment with their own microphone and, of course, that’s what ended up on the news that night.
Todd Lockwood: The recording of “We Shall Overcome” that you hear on the CD is the actual recording that was done with the media right there in the room. We recorded it live on purpose, because we wanted to capture the energy of a live performance. If you listen carefully to the rhythm, you can sense the energy increasing on each verse. It’s like it starts getting cranked up—the tempo picks up just a teeny bit—and then the energy really starts to build. Another thing you’ll notice on that track is that when Bernie is delivering his little speech at the beginning, the piano starts creeping in under him beautifully. It’s just a few little chords here and there, and then, right as he finishes—va-vooom!—the whole band chimes in. Bernie and Andy Shapiro, the piano player, had to rehearse that part a couple times.
Don Sidney: We just made space in the music for Bernie to read his monologue. The band would comp on these chords as the chorus would do whatever they would do, and that’s how we worked it in.
Nancy Beaven: The singers were all on the risers and they had strategically placed ambient mics.
Tom Walters: It was one of the few times at White Crow when we recorded a choir on a rock album. From the technological side, that posed some issues. Normally, you want just the singer’s voice and nothing else on a track. That’s why we use headphones—to prevent bleed. We couldn’t give headphones to every single chorus member, so we actually had to set up speakers pointed towards the risers so the singers could hear the song. I remember scrambling around trying to make that happen.
Todd Lockwood: For me, the biggest challenge was getting all the timing right, especially Bernie’s phrasing. I actually went back after the fact and moved things a little, just a second this way or that way, maybe just a quarter of a second. I had all that capability. It was an analogue studio, so I was manually spinning stuff in. I had done this many times before on other projects so it was nothing new for me.
We also had the luxury of being able to do a dozen different versions of Bernie’s track if we wanted, and we could save them all to use the best bits and pieces. Though, I don’t think we ended up doing a huge number of takes. We probably did three or four takes of each song, except for “We Shall Overcome,” where I think we only did two. With a performance like that, where the energy is really the most important element, you have to get it in the first or second take. After that, you’ll reach the point of diminishing returns. You might get it sounding really nice and tight, but it might not have the energy anymore.
Mark Ransom: Having Bernie and the chorus in the studio definitely added some electricity to the session. That’s a true thing of recording: the more live it is, with everybody participating at once, the more energy there’ll be.
Jon Gailmor: Recording can be an unnatural act because you’re playing your instrument, and then you’re singing over that, and then you’re overdubbing harmonies track after track, and there’s no audience. That night at White Crow there were a lot of people listening in the room as well as performing, so it really was like a hootenanny. They had microphones set up all over the place and we all just wailed.
Jeff Salisbury: It was sort of a religious experience—without being religious, of course.
Michael Oakland: It was the way to do a session. Very old school, like how we used to do it when a band just went in and “Bang! There it is! That’s it!” It’s the energy that really sells a project. It’s not whether it’s sonically perfect—it’s the energy. Anybody from the old school knows that.
Todd Lockwood: There was a lot going on in the studio that night. Even though Doug Jaffe and I were co-producing, there were a lot of other people handling little sub-tasks. There was someone conducting the chorus and someone else writing the lyrics on a giant pad of paper so that the whole chorus could see them—lots of little things you don’t realize you need until you’re doing it.
Howard Mitchell: I don’t recall the session ever feeling chaotic. A lot of that I have to credit Todd for because he had it arranged so that the singers could all stand in one area, the band was in another area, Bernie was in his own booth, and there was somebody who was conducting each song. Basically, it was just 1, 2, 3, go! There was also a chart up on the wall with the structure of the songs written out: first verse, Bernie, chorus, second verse, Bernie, chorus. Everyone in there was a fairly experienced musician or singer and was familiar enough with the songs, so everyone picked a part and it worked pretty well.
Don Sidney: While the musicians were in the room running through stuff Michael Oakland would stand in front of the choir and play the chord changes on an acoustic guitar.
Michael Oakland: Todd asked me to conduct the chorus. I was never a choral director per se, but I was a band leader, and I also had been in church choirs and been a part of choral arrangements. Of course, the singers were all really great and wonderful people, so everybody was pretty willing and forgiving.
Joe Moore: It would have been chaotic if we didn’t have a conductor.
Nancy Beaven: Todd was busy with the technical stuff and riding herd on what was going on, so people just stepped up and said, “I’ll do this,” and “I’ll do that.” It was beautiful in that sense. I don’t know if I was the one who got the lyrics up on there or not, but I was there saying, “OK, what are the lyrics?” We didn’t all know those songs, and we didn’t know all the verses.
Emily Wadhams: They had the lyrics written out on flip charts, so we ran through each song a few times and then recorded each one. They had somebody conducting us, taking us through the songs and making suggestions.
Howard Mitchell: The singers were all singing and then coming down in volume while Bernie spoke, and then they’d get the cue to sing the chorus. Everybody cut at the same time, we talked about what we needed to do to improve, and then everybody started up and tried it again—as opposed to a situation where, OK, now we’ve got the band done, let’s get the singers done, now let’s bring Bernie in tomorrow for his part. It wasn’t like that at all.
Todd Lockwood: On some of the tracks, we did the entire song without Bernie, and then added him as an overdub. That might have been the case on “This Land Is Your Land,” for example. We might have had a stand-in vocalist doing his part before he did it. Doug Jaffe, the co-producer, worked on the vocal harmonies, which usually involved three or four of the primary singers.
Don Sidney: We did everything live. I came in the next day to do a couple guitar overdubs, but pretty much everything else was all live.
Todd Lockwood: I don’t think there’s much that I would have changed about the album. I did put a little bit more reverb on Bernie’s voice than I might have done with another type of band. In my mind’s eye I was imagining him performing in a college gymnasium-sized space to a large group of people. I was trying to get that feel. It just felt right at the time.
Don Sidney: It was a long day, and it seemed even longer because of the chaos of the press coming in while we were trying to get the session going. I think they had an issue with the tape machine and that’s why we ended up all sitting in the side room there with Bernie. We were hanging out while they were fixing some technical stuff. I think it was one in the morning at that point. Then we had to go back in and cut a couple more tunes.
Todd Lockwood: There was a point during the session when Bernie sat down on the risers and all the musicians gathered around. He articulated how he had always been intrigued by the power of popular music—how it can motivate the masses and can be used in really constructive ways to inspire people to action.
Mark Ransom: There was Bernie, in a public forum, being political.It seemed pretty normal for him. And he was sensitive—he was asking the musicians questions, discussing how they make money, and he was also acknowledging that he wasn’t musical.
Nancy Beaven: I was sitting next to Bernie and he was trying to explain that things seemed a little different with musicians now. We were being very mildly critiqued. He believed musicians weren’t doing material that addressed the issues like in the songs that he was performing that night.
Jon Gailmor: Bernie didn’t feel like a mayor that night. He was one of us. There was no real barrier between us, there was just a very relaxed and comfortable and natural feel to it. You can hear that on the recording—it’s just a bunch of people singing. It might as well have been a living room.
Howard Mitchell: When things quieted down and we weren’t recording, I listened to a little bit of Bernie’s conversation, but I was also catching up with the other musicians. It was quite a social scene. I don’t think that many of us have ever been together at the same time again.
Emily Wadhams: There was sort of an incongruousness about the whole thing with Bernie, the folk singer-talker, with his thick Brooklyn accent. It was crazy, but it all worked. What struck me that night was that it could have been absolutely ridiculous, and it wasn’t. It really worked, and it didn’t feel like something you’d regret for the rest of your life.
Howard Mitchell: Once everything was pretty much in the can and the recording was over, nobody wanted to leave. Here we were in this studio, making music that had a message, hanging out with all of our musician friends in this environment that Todd had made just as welcoming as possible. So we all just kept hanging around. And, of course, now people could have a beer or drink some wine and it just turned into this social thing. There were also a lot of boxes of pizza. If I remember correctly, Todd had to shoo people out of the studio at the end of the night.
Howard Mitchell: About three days after the recording session I made a phone call to White Crow Audio and I said [imitating Bernie’s voice], “Hello, Todd. Todd? This is Bernie, and I’d just like to tell you what a pleasure it was to be with these young musicians having such a fine time at your recording studio.” I found out a couple days later that Todd actually thought it was Bernie on the phone.
Todd Lockwood: We worked on the album for about seven days in total, plus a bit more for the final mixing, but that part only required me and Don Sidney in the studio. We had the album out by Christmas.
Danny Coane: In 1987 vinyl was on its way out and CDs hadn’t really come in strong yet, so the album was released on cassette tape.
Todd Lockwood: We had our own duplication facility at White Crow, and it was pretty esoteric. I had 50 Nakamichi cassette decks all stacked up. We could start and stop them with a single button. We’d load them up and pop them into record in unison—Ka-Boom! It was really an audiophile approach because the cassettes were being duplicated in real-time as opposed to high-speed duplication, which was what most record labels would have been using back then.
Todd Lockwood: I think there were 1,000 copies originally. We probably sold 800 of those. We had these display cases in the stores that looked like little jukeboxes and that was how people were seeing them.
Howard Mitchell: I designed and built the counter top retail display case for the cassette with Todd. It was wood and acrylic with silk-screening. It had the custom logo of BurlingTown Records with a big rainbow over it. We made 50 of the them and put them all around the area. They were filled with cassettes and you could open up the back, reach in, and get a cassette to sell right there at the counter. They were in all the music stores and book stores and in a couple of grocery stores, too. They were put out wherever we felt Bernie fans would appear.
Todd Lockwood: The album sold rather well for the first few months. Eventually, I gave a couple boxes of them to Bernie for his future campaigns, just to give to supporters or whatever.
Julie Davis: I did a lot of fundraising for Bernie’s campaigns, and people were always coming up with creative grassroots efforts to help support him. Todd had the idea that creating this tape would be another way to help. We wanted to make sure that the album got out there, so I went down to Church street, right across from Leunig’s, and I set up a card table with a boom box for a couple of weekends in a row. I don’t think I got permission or anything. I just loved the tape, and I would play it over and over and over and over. I never got a negative response, and no one ever complained that I was playing it constantly. People would come by and buy copies—they were selling like hot cakes! Of course, they were only $10 a piece, so we didn’t raise much money. I also took the tapes to our never-ending local fundraisers and tried to sell them there as well.
Todd Lockwood: When the cassette first came out, we started to get some national media attention—The New York Times and USA Today both did pieces about it. I remember suggesting to Bernie at the time, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you went on David Letterman?” His immediate response was, “Oh god, I hate David Letterman.” Now, years later, Bernie is quite at home on shows like Letterman.
Jon Gailmor: It was a big moment for Todd. It put his studio on the map.
Mark Ransom: It was the talk of the town for a while there, but it was also like, “Well, what the heck is this thing? Why did we do it?”
Don Sidney: Amongst the folks who were involved in it, it was like, “Wow, it really came out!” The media just tried to poke fun at it, like it was a novelty. WCAX was a pretty Republican television station. They weren’t big supporters of Bernie. I think they just saw it as a way to try to make fun of the situation.
Todd Lockwood: The album was released on cassette, but I also made a quarter-inch reel-to-reel dub of two songs. I shot it out to a select number of local radio stations and said, “Hey, I think you’re going to want to play this.”
Joe Moore: We heard it on the radio stations at the time. It wasn’t really big, but it was popular when it came out.
Michael Oakland: It was getting some airplay on local stations. Of course, that was back when not every radio station was syndicated from Chicago.
Tom Walters: A lot of people were talking about it, but I never heard it on the radio. I just don’t think it was radio-friendly.
Howard Mitchell: The album didn’t get much radio airplay. I think one of the reasons was that while Bernie loved the album and he loved recording it, he was also a little worried about the perception of him suddenly becoming a recording artist with his voice all over the airwaves. So the idea behind the album release was: if you’re a fan, buy the tape.
Dick McCormack: People’s reactions were all over the place. A lot of people found the music delightful and they found Bernie moving. Other people were somewhat mocking of the Brooklyn accent and the very earnest delivery.
Emily Wadhams: Frankly, I don’t think it made a huge splash with my friends and family. I didn’t give it to everybody for Christmas, for example.
Dick McCormack: I played it at a family gathering that Christmas. I remember saying to my family, “One of the things I love about Bernie is how completely unpretentious he is,” by which I meant that he just put himself out there as who he was, come hell or high water. My aunt, the old dowager, Daughter of the American Revolution, put her nose up in the air and said, “I think the fact that he did this project at all was rather pretentious.” So, we were all over the map on that.
Todd Lockwood: That Christmas we probably sold as many cassettes to Republicans who were buying it as a gag gift as we were to Bernie fans who were buying it as a memento.
Tom Walters: As soon as I heard that Bernie was considering a run for president, the first thing I thought was: Oh, Christ. That album is going to get discovered.
Todd Lockwood: In summer 2014 I got an email from someone at Seven Days. They were creating a new section on their website devoted to Bernie and wanted to share digital files of the songs. It had been many years since I had heard the tape. I was actually surprised by how current it sounded. It didn’t sound dated or hokey. When I listened to “This Land is Your Land” after not hearing it for years, I thought, Wow, this thing is actually pretty cool! It has got the makings of a cult hit or Internet sensation.
Initially, I posted previews of the five songs on SoundCloud for Seven Days to share with its readers. In the first month or two we had 27,000 plays, and I was like, “Holy mackerel! This is a whole new ballgame.” It wasn’t too long after that I started giving serious thought to re-releasing the album on CD.
Don Sidney: Todd sent me an email about re-releasing the album, and then he called to ask, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, considering what’s going on, I think it’s a great idea.”
Todd Lockwood: Bernie was still months away from announcing his presidential run, but based on what we saw on SoundCloud, we felt it was worth it to re-release the album on CD.
Don Sidney: Todd mailed me a copy of the remastered CD. I put it on and was like, “Holy cow!” Looking back, I would probably redo some of the music, not in a bad way, just in terms of 2015 standards.
Howard Mitchell: When it came out as a CD I was totally excited. I put it in the car right away, and it’s still there now. If I’ve got somebody in the car who’s not familiar with the album, I play it for them and they eat it up. They’re just knocked out that this is Bernie Sanders.
Nancy Beaven: I put the CD on and was like, “Whoa, that sounds really amazing!” It sounded a lot better than the cassette. You can play the CD really loud and it still sounds good.
Emily Wadhams: It was kind of shocking to listen to the recording again after so long. For years I’ve joked with my friends and family that if I could do my career all over again, I’d want to be a backup singer for Bonnie Raitt or Jackson Browne or Leonard Cohen. I keep thinking I missed my calling as a backup singer. And now I realize, well, I was! I was a backup singer for Bernie Sanders!
Jon Gailmor: It was wonderful to hear it again. Nothing conjures up an era in your life like music. Hearing that stuff brings back the whole event.
Dick McCormack: When I listen to it now, the singing sounds more dated than Bernie’s vocal part does. It sounds very much like the 1980s. It’s almost a 1970s sound, kind of an Up With People, New Christy Minstrels sound—very earnest, liberal white people in Vermont, trying to sing soulfully.
Jeff Salisbury: I thought the album held up pretty well, musically speaking. It’s a fond memory that we could all collaborate on something like that.
Todd Lockwood: After I reissued the album in December 2014, the media caught me off guard. It quickly became a story about how Bernie Sanders can’t sing. That’s too bad because they missed the real point of the project, its message.
Jon Gailmor: It took a lot of hubris to do this album. In some ways it’s laughable, because here’s this guy who can’t sing particularly well. He’s got all of us singers in back of him and he’s just doing his thing. It takes a lot of nerve, but Bernie’s got it.
Dick McCormack: Bernie was a terrible singer by all accounts, and I liked that he didn’t try to sing. It’s not like he ran away from singing, it’s that he developed a different strategy. And in many ways his recitations struck me as clumsy as well. It was just his “Goddammit! I’m gonna do this!” attitude—that’s something that Bernie has had all along. I’ve always admired that about him.
Howard Mitchell: It really is a great recording, the way it kicks in on the first cut with the drums and piano and guitar. It just comes in really bold. When you hear Bernie start talking you realize you’re hearing a one-of-a-kind piece. A lot of people laugh at it or they see it as tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t. I’ve always seen it as an authentic, in-your-face, honest, creative production of good political values.
Todd Lockwood: It’s authentic. It’s a real guy singing about real stuff that’s important to him. There’s real sincerity in it. You’d have to be a rock not to hear that Bernie really believes and feels what he’s saying on those recordings.
Mark Ransom: It was a pretty wacky thing, and pretty funny at the time. I think he totally meant what he was doing. He always has, which is what I like about him.
Emily Wadhams: I remember thinking that the album could be really, really ridiculous. But Bernie was so passionate and so committed and so unselfconscious about it. I was struck at the time that he was completely into it, focused and serious. Something that could have been absurd, he just put everything into it, and that’s Bernie. He doesn’t do things halfway. And he didn’t do this album halfway.
Dick McCormack: What I was mainly impressed by—and this confirmed my earlier view of Bernie, a view that has been confirmed many times since—is that he really does have a “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach. That’s not to say that he’s reckless, but when he decides he’s going to do something, he does it.
Nancy Beaven: That session was a timeless event that had its own aura and specialness and magic. It was a really good reminder about why I liked Vermont.
Jon Gailmor: What a great, refreshing moment it was—a cathartic moment for all of us.
Don Sidney: It was a fun thing to do and it was great that Bernie felt comfortable enough to do it. His effort was sincere. It was actually pretty brave on his part. Nobody thought anything would ever come of it, but he felt it was important. It just shows that the guy hasn’t changed at all. He’s been steady as a rock in his vision of the world.
Joe Moore: He’s still a Rock of Gibraltar, still carrying that load, and he hasn’t dropped the ball. That’s what it felt like, listening to the album again.
Todd Lockwood: 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.
Michael Oakland: This thing is just so harmonically in tune with what’s going on with Bernie’s life. The message is still the same.
Howard Mitchell: I think we’re going to be hearing this music again in many different contexts in the coming year. There’ll be people using it to try to make Bernie look silly, and there’ll be people using it to show how authentic and sincere he is. Who knows where the final judgment will fall.
Julie Davis: Bernie really is true to form. He hasn’t changed his song at all.
Todd Lockwood: Owner of White Crow Audio, recording engineer, and co-producer of We Shall Overcome
Julie Davis: Mayoral appointee under Bernie Sanders and campaign fundraiser
Emily Wadhams: Chorus member and background vocals
Mark Ransom: Electric bass
Nancy Beaven: Chorus member and soloist
Howard Mitchell: Chorus member and background vocals
Tom Walters: Studio assistant at White Crow Audio
Don Sidney: Electric guitar
Jeff Salisbury: Drums
Jon Gailmor: Soloist
Danny Coane: Chorus member and soloist
Dick McCormack: Soloist
Joe Moore: Chorus member
Michael Oakland: Chorus member