The year was 1987. President Reagan was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant were tangling at Wrestlemania III, and a young(ish) Bernie Sanders was launching his political career as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
Pre-Bernie Burlington was home to antiquated, Footloose-style sound ordinances restricting the use of amplified music in city parks or public buildings, and in order to book a show at the city's one auditorium, a promoter would have to appear before the city council to play a sample of the artists' music and get approval.
"It was just mind-bogglingly stuck in the Fifties," recalls Todd Lockwood, then owner of the local recording studio, White Crow Audio.
But Mayor Sanders changed all that. "When he got into City Hall and cleaned house, suddenly we had music everywhere," Lockwood says. Today Burlington is home to one of the premiere jazz festivals in North America and free concerts in the park every Thursday, and Lockwood credits Sanders for both.
Sanders became something of hero to Lockwood and other local musicians for, but that wasn't why Lockwood wrote a letter to the mayor, care of City Hall, 28 years ago, to ask if Sanders would collaborate on a folk album.
The reason was much more practical: Lockwood had grown the tiny recording studio he started in his carriage-house apartment into a large, state-of-the-art operation, complete with a hand-built Neve recording console from England and a Swiss-made Studer tape machine, to rival any set-up in New York City. He had a staff to man the fancy equipment, and he had salaries and health benefits to pay, so whenever there was dead time, Lockwood would try to fill the studio with local projects to put out on his label, BurlingTown Recordings.
The idea for "We Shall Overcome" was something on the order of Michael Jackson's "We Are the World" album, released two years prior, except, as Lockwood says, "Michael assembled a bunch of superstars — we assembled a bunch of Vermonters."
There were about 30 artists in all, like Nancy Beavens, Jon Gailmor and future state senator Dick McCormack.
Some of them, like Gailmor – who held one of the first benefit concerts for Sanders when he ran for mayor in '81 – were confirmed Bernie supporters. ("Ten people showed up," Gailmor says of that first concert, "but the thing is, he won by ten votes — I don't ever let him hear the end of that.")
Others were more skeptical of the democratic socialist mayor. "I think they were not completely sure about his politics because, back at that time, he did sound very radical," Lockwood tells Rolling Stone. "His ideas don't strike me as particularly radical now, but in 1987, he was saying pretty much the same things, except he was saying 'millionaires' instead of 'billionaires.'"
"Now, probably every musician who sang on this project will be voting for Bernie," Lockwood says.
He may not be exactly right about that, however: Danny Coane — then of the rockabilly band the Throbulators, today of the Starline Rhythm Boys — who was featured on the track "Oh Freedom," demurs when asked if he's a Bernie supporter. "I don't know if I really want to get into that. I have some issues — but, anyway, we'll leave it at that," he says. Pressed, Coane, who has performed at a number of Sanders fundraisers over the years, adds, "He's stuck to his guns on this stuff, and I give him a lot of credit for that. He hasn't wavered on his positions." (Gailmor and Lockwood remain enthusiastic Bernie supporters.)
The album was made over the course of a week, and was sold — just in time for Christmas — for $10 a pop at 25 locations in the state. Lockwood reckons he moved somewhere close to 1,000 copies — "That was pretty impressive for a local release that was only sold within 30 or 40 miles of Burlington."
When Sanders ran for Congress a few years later, Lockwood donated the last of the cassettes to his campaign. Lockwood doesn't own a single original copy today, though he has seen them pop up on sites like eBay. "It's a collectors item," he says.
Since the recording was unearthed last year by the Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days, Sanders has called his participation a "big mistake."
Asked if Sanders' distancing himself from the album, hurts his feelings, Lockwood says, "A little bit, but I completely understood it."
"I'd probably have done the same thing," he says. "He had more important things to do."
Back in '87, Sanders signed a record contract guaranteeing him royalties if the album ever turned a profit. At the time he said he would donate the proceeds from the album to charity, but he never made any.
That's about to change. Since a remastered version of the album was released this year, Sanders stands to see a check after all. According to Lockwood, the album has already more than doubled its original sales: Around 2,000 CDs have been sold, in addition to many more digital downloads.
"The original letter agreement we had is now in effect again, and he will, eventually, receive some royalties," Lockwood says. "It's not going to be huge."
Still, as Sanders, king of small donations, will tell you: every vacuum penny counts.