Bernie Sanders, folk troubadour: a politician's star turn

by Maggy DONALDSON, with Diane Desobeau in Burlington, Vermont
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Bernie Sanders (L) in the studio during a 1987 session of the song "We Shall Overcome," recorded with 30 Vermont musicians and singers

Today music's hottest club is a Bernie Sanders rally -- The Strokes and Public Enemy have been among the acts onstage for him -- but decades ago the presidential hopeful got behind the mic to drop some of his own bars.

On a brisk November day in 1987, Sanders, sporting black-rimmed Wayfarer glasses and not one but two hoodies, joined 30 Vermont musicians to perform five social justice-minded classics for a folk compilation known as "The Bernie Project."

Todd Lockwood -- the owner of the Burlington studio White Crow Audio, which during its 15-year lifespan hosted bands including Phish -- had written the activist mayor of Vermont's capital asking if he'd collaborate on what he conceived of as a novelty album.

"He was very well liked and was actually quite an effective mayor," Lockwood, 68, told AFP. "Colorful guy, very opinionated -- but was a doer."

"It wasn't until I sat down with him that suddenly I realized he saw this a different way," the producer said of the album.

"He saw it as an opportunity to make a more important statement about life."

- 'Folk rap' -

Lockwood recalls that while Sanders' vision for the five-track album was clear, his vocal skills were less so: "He's not a singer."

"He's not musical at all."

Then in his mid-40s, Sanders himself said that practice sessions in front of his tape recorder were "somewhat frightening."

But "we're not selling a pretty voice here," Lockwood said in a 1987 news spot.

"We're selling someone that has convictions."

Plan B had Sanders take a "talking blues" approach, recording "sort of a reggae version" of folk tunes and spirituals like "This Land is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome."

"It could be looked at as sort of folk rap," Lockwood said.

And like other frontmen with singular vocals -- think Bob Dylan or Lou Reed -- Sanders gave the classics a unique edge.

"The album makes people laugh and cry sort of alternately," says Lockwood. "It's really quite emotional... especially if you're someone that was living through the civil rights era."

"But then, you hear that Brooklyn accent; that would just make you laugh at the same time," the producer and visual artist said.

"Just a wild combination of emotions that you get when you listen to this thing."

- Art for All -

Today the 78-year-old senator is vying for the Democratic presidential nominee, racing neck and neck with former vice president Joe Biden on a platform that includes universal health care and taxing the rich.

He has scooped endorsements from artists across genres, including rappers Cardi B, Chuck D, T.I., Lil Yachty and Killer Mike; pop stars Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Jason Mraz; rock legends Neil Young and David Crosby; and alt acts Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, The Strokes and Jack White.

According to Lockwood, Sanders has long prioritized the arts: In Burlington he scrapped city ordinances that severely restricted amplifying music in public spaces.

"That was one of the first things that changed when Bernie became mayor," the producer said. "Overnight, we had music in the parks."

Burlington is now home to a respected 10-day jazz festival and a Mayor's Arts Council, both of which began under Sanders.

"It's amazing for a city of only 45,000 people," Lockwood said. "Bernie ... wanted the arts to be accessible by all levels of society."

"He didn't want it to be only for people that could afford to pay for expensive tickets."

- Rock the charts -

Just under 1,000 cassette tapes of Sanders' folk album were released in the late 1980s, and the project was largely forgotten until the Democratic socialist announced his 2016 presidential bid.

Then Lockwood got the recording remastered and released it online and in CD form -- and Sanders jumped onto the Billboard Top New Artists chart.

"There's something we never imagined," Lockwood laughed.

But it was not unearned: "He was putting a lot of chutzpah into it in the studio," the Vermonter said of Sanders.

"Not for a minute worrying that, 'am I going to sound like a fool?' He just had the confidence to put it out there."

It's a tune that hasn't changed in decades, which have seen Sanders work his way through Congress to become a presidential hopeful and leftist beacon.

"We're starting small," Sanders said in 1987 of his folk album.

"Today Vermont, tomorrow the world."

Bernie Sanders (L) in the studio during a 1987 session of the song "We Shall Overcome," recorded with 30 Vermont musicians and singers

The master tape of the song "We Shall Overcome," part of a 1987 folk album Bernie Sanders recorded

Todd Lockwood, at his Burlington, Vermont home with a copy of the folk album that he produced, which featured then-mayor Bernie Sanders

The script for the folk album "We Shall Overcome," edited by Bernie Sanders for the "talking blues" album he recorded as mayor of Vermont in 1987

US rock band The Strokes perform before a rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire

The original cassette with CDs of Bernie Sanders' 1987 folk album

Bernie Sanders addresses a campaign rally in Chicago as he races to snag the Democratic nomination in hopes of taking on Donald Trump