Various Artists, Give US Your Poor

Amanda Petrusich

By Amanda Petrusich

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

There's a certain ring of truth to the songs on Give US Your Poor. That might come from the fact that this remarkable album about homelessness features several collaborations between established musicians and homeless men and women. Since 1999, Give US Your Poor — a public education initiative run out of the University of Massachusetts 'McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies — has been committed to obliterating epidemic homelessness in the United States. They've partnered with trad-folk label Appleseed Recordings to produce this compelling compilation, which explores the tragedy of homelessness through traditional folksongs and first-hand accounts of life on the street.

The Boss and Pete Seeger, Jon Bon Jovi, Bonnie Raitt and other old lefties fight homelessness with the power of song

The collection, which includes an audio documentary, spoken pieces from Tim Robbins and Danny Glover, and previously unreleased cuts from left-leaning folk, rock, and blues artists (Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, Jon Bon Jovi, Natalie Merchant, Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo, Buffalo Tom, Sweet Honey in the Rock), is a surprisingly poignant reminder of how functional folk music can still be. Springsteen and Seeger team up for "Hobo's Lullaby," a track written by yodeler/workers 'rights activist Goebel Reeves (aka "The Texas Drifter"), although it's typically (and erroneously) attributed to Woody Guthrie; with Seeger's banjo as anchor, a handful of members of the E-Street Band help out on the tune, and their rendition is rich and heavily textured by bits of violin and Springsteen's wearied growl.

Nick Flynn's memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, recounts his experience working at a Boston homeless shelter and unexpectedly stumbling into his estranged father; the freshly-reformed Buffalo Tom sets Flynn's poem "Father Outside" to a haze of guitar and, curiously for an alt-rock band, wailing saxophone. Sweet Honey in the Rock's take on the traditional "Stranger Blues" is mesmeric and haunting; Natalie Merchant, performing with six formerly homeless musicians, offers a chilling interpretation of Nichole Cooper's "There Is No Good Reason." (Cooper wrote the track when she was fifteen and living on the streets of Minnesota.)

Charitable compilations — despite shining intentions — often suffer from throwaway tracks or less-than-inspiring performances. Thankfully, Give US Your Poor is a vibrant, consistent and thoughtfully produced collection of folksongs that address — by many different means — the heartbreak of homelessness in America.