Give US Your Poor
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by John Metzger
Sun September 30, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Raising the profile of the homeless problem that plagues America is a noble and necessary cause. Whether the condition is brought about by a lost job, a physical or mental ailment, or a deadbeat spouse, roughly 3.5 million residents (including 1.35 million children) — or 1% of the country’s population — are living as vagrants at any given time. This issue isn’t confined to urban centers either. Nearly 9% of those without homes populate rural communities. Even worse, the safety net that was designed to provide a modicum of protection has eroded significantly in recent years. Nearly 37% of individuals and 52% of families have been turned away from homeless shelters because there is no room for them. For a nation that is as wealthy as the United States, such staggering numbers are utterly disgraceful.
While the rich have gotten richer, the poor have grown poorer, and although there’s no doubt that a small segment of the population always will try to tweak the system to their advantage, milking the government for every penny they can get, many more innocent bystanders are hurt when state and federal programs meant to help them in their darkest hour are shut down in the name of reducing the national debt. In the grand scheme of things, the volume of resources that go to those who never will seek gainful employment is far less than the amount that currently is frittered away when corporations are rewarded for moving jobs overseas, when private contractors are hired as mercenaries to fight an unjust war, or when banks are bailed out in the wake of their own bad management decisions. Compassionate conservatism is neither compassionate nor conservative. It’s a gross perversion of the American dream that has been sold to the public by a pair of snake oil salesmen from Crawford, Texas and Casper, Wyoming.
Homelessness is a problem that politicians long have tried to downplay, and their method of dealing with it largely has been to treat its symptoms so that they can sweep the larger needs under the rug where they can be forgotten. After all, if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. Considering the fact that vagrants have a tendency not to vote — in fact, in all 50 states, there are laws on the books that now make it exceedingly difficult for them to even try — there’s no incentive to stop congressmen, senators, governors, mayors, city councilmen, or presidents from looking the other way. Anyone who bothers to examine the facts that lie at the heart of America’s homelessness issue, however, is bound to be outraged, especially when one begins to comprehend the reasons that people find themselves without a place to live. It is the desire, then, of Give US Your Poor, an initiative by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, to stir enough interest in the subject that there is no choice left for the country collectively but to attack vagrancy’s root causes.
To that end, the socially conscious, roots-music label Appleseed has collaborated with Give US Your Poor to create a 19-track benefit album that is designed to spark public debate in the months preceding America’s next presidential election. Although its makers clearly have their hearts in the right place, the set unfortunately is a flawed affair. For starters, Appleseed and Give US Your Poor are so close to the issue at hand that they’ve become blinded by the urgency of solving the problem. In fact, they are so desperate to win the populace’s attention that they padded the collection with an audio documentary as well as a trio of dramatic pieces that feature actors Danny Glover and Tim Robbins. The results are convincingly delivered, and they emphatically make their point. Yet, they also are so heavy-handed that it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to hear them more than once.
Like most benefit compilations, the music on Give US Your Poor falters on occasion, mostly because it has a tendency to try to suit all tastes. Consequently, there’s little more than the topic itself to hold the songs together as they stylistically shift from Jewel’s breathy folk-pop (1,000 Miles) to the intricate and mesmerizing vocal interplay of Sweet Honey in the Rock (Stranger Blues) and from the salvation-seeking, gospel-soul ruminations of Jon Bon Jovi and Mighty Sam McClain (Show Me the Way) to the earthy, acoustic blues plied by Keb’ Mo’ and Eagle Park Slim (Baby, Don’t Let Me Go Homeless).
Nevertheless, a few of the album’s cuts do succeed in hitting their mark squarely: On Becky’s Tune, Michelle Shocked and Michael Sullivan surround their message with luminescent music; Bonnie Raitt and Weepin’ Willie Robinson add bite to a cover of Rufus Thompson’s blues classic Walkin’ the Dog; Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger unite for a sturdy interpretation of Hobo’s Lullaby, thus providing a fitting coda to We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions; and on her rendition of Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, Madeleine Peyroux’s expressive vocals sink sadly into the mood-inducing patter of percussion.
Many of the artists associated with Give US Your Poor have had first-hand experience with being homeless, which ultimately is what lends the set its gravity. From the outsourcing of jobs to the lack of care for the veterans of America’s armed forces, there are a lot of issues that are vying for attention in the upcoming presidential election. The fact that homelessness is the most extreme consequence of many of them makes the coming months all the more crucial for restoring the safety net and finally drafting a plan to banish poverty from the richest country on Earth.
Give US Your Poor is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box