Give Us Your Poor
“Maybe they’ll go away if you don’t see them,” says the unnamed narrator in the opening track of this eye-opening, heart wrenching collection dedicated to raising awareness of the ongoing homelessness problem in the United States. An issue that seems to have been shuffled to the back of the social agenda in recent years, homeless people are still all around us, and the statistics are a sobering reality. As one of those in a family that’s one or two missed paychecks away from being out on the street myself, these recordings raise both fear and hope. Fear, that any of these stories could be about me someday, and hope that millions more can be lifted out of the cycle of poverty and homelessness by opportunities offered through people and organizations that care.
The concept of this compilation is built around the homeless issue, with many of the contributing artists either currently or formerly homeless themselves. There are famous homeless people here, like Jewel, whose, “1,000 Miles,” was written when she was living in her Datsun hatchback. The unknowns, however, are the ones who give the most surprising performances.
Eagle Park Slim, an on-again, off-again homeless blues musician, recorded his own, “Baby, Don’t Let Me Go Homeless,” with the urbane blues singer Keb’ Mo’, going voice to voice with him in an impassioned performance that belies the desperate need expressed in the song’s plea for a place to stay for the night.
Natalie Merchant takes the Mighty Sam McClain and a cast of other unknowns on the Tracy Chapman-like blues riff, “There Is No Good Reason,” written by then 15-year old homeless Minnesotan Nichole Cooper.
Michelle Shocked and formerly homeless musician friend Michael Sullivan pick gently around his song, “Becky’s Tune.” Sullivan is now a homeless activist in Massachusetts, coming full circle in helping those in a similar situation to his own. It’s a simplistic, yet beautifully rendered ballad decrying the rich and powerful oppressing the poor and weak, made even more poignant with the presence of a 13 year old fan Shocked brought to the session to sing backing vocals on lines like, “Open your eyes, don’t tell me no lies, that you can’t feel the children’s pain.”
The one track here that could be a rock radio hit if you heard it sandwiched between Will Hoge and Tom Petty is actually a poem set to music by the re-formed Buffalo Tom. “Father Outside,” a poem by Nick Flynn, a Boston volunteer who worked with that city’s homeless population, in Bill Janovitz’ hands became, “Ink Falling (Father Outside).” It’s equally as rocking as any of the band’s early material with the musical accompaniment granted to the surprisingly lyrical verse, and it’s easily the best song here.
Family musician and former Del Fuego Dan Zanes contributes a typically bouncy tune, his take on Leadbelly’s “Boll Weevil,” which with its’ “They’re looking for a home,” refrain, somehow fits this collection’s theme. Add the sweet voice of eleven-year-old former homeless child Kyla Middleton, and the differences between “Us” and “Them,” become meaningless in they way they ought to be, with two people, formerly strangers but now fast friends and musical collaborators, connecting through the music.
It’s that hope of connecting through the music that the producers of this compilation must have, the outside chance that hearing these songs and the stories intertwined between and inside them will open up someone’s heart or mind to, as the liner notes state, “The assumption that homelessness is solvable and that we are all in this together.”
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A much shorter version of this review was first published in Country Standard Time