Never poor in spirit

Homeless, not rootless
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  November 14, 2007

BOSTON CONNECTION Natalie Merchant flanked, with affection, by Weepin’ Willie Robinson (left) and Mighty Sam McClain (right) during the recording of the Give Us You Poor CD.
The prospect of New England gospel-soul singer Mighty Sam McClain recording a duet with Jon Bon Jovi or performing onstage with Natalie Merchant seems improbable. But on Friday, when McClain takes the stage at the renovated Strand Theatre in Dorchester, he’ll be singing with Merchant, as well as opera tenor Mario Frangoulis. Hometown rock favorites Buffalo Tom are also on the 8 pm bill, which benefits several Boston homeless organizations under the umbrella of the UMass-based Give Us Your Poor organization.

McClain’s duet with Bon Jovi is “Show Me the Way,” on the just-released Give Us Your Poor: 17 New Recordings to Help End Homelessness (Appleseed), a nationally released fundraiser CD that also includes local blues veteran Weepin’ Willie Robinson performing the R&B classic “Walking the Dog” with Bonnie Raitt.

What McClain and Robinson have in common with many of the other artists on the CD is that they know what it’s like to be homeless. Octogenarian Robinson currently resides at downtown’s New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans and McClain has lived on the streets of New Orleans and Nashville.

The disc took John McGah — a researcher at UMass-Boston’s Center for Social Policy, and the director of Give Us Your Poor — two years to assemble.

Initially, the recording was to be the soundtrack for a documentary about homelessness that the organization is filming for public television, but the music took on a life of its own when the project re-focused on songs written by artists who’ve been homeless. McGah drafted stars such as Bon Jovi, Merchant, Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Jewel, Keb’ Mo’, Madeleine Peyroux, and Michelle Shocked for marquee value and, whenever possible, paired them with the lesser-known authors of those often compelling, biographical songs.

For McGah, who played guitar and sang for 10 years in local band the Wait, the project was a natural. “Homelessness disconnects people — economically, spiritually, and from others — and music does the opposite. I saw this as an opportunity to dispel the myths of homelessness, which is one of the goals of Give Us Your Poor.”

McClain, whose spiritual “Show Me the Way” was hand-picked by Bon Jovi, also joins Merchant on the album’s “There Is No Good Reason,” a song written by a 15-year-old homeless Minnesotan. A video featuring Merchant and McClain recording is viewable on YouTube.

“When I was on the street I encountered the additional hardships that myths about homelessness create,” says McClain. “People won’t look you in the eye or speak to you because they think you’re gonna rob them or that you’re lazy and worthless, or that you’re outside by choice. Many homeless people have jobs and families and are hard workers. But people don’t want to give you a job when you tell them your address is 11th and Third. When you sleep outdoors for days and can’t take a bath, you look and smell like a bum, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bum. Sometimes when people would just look at me and speak to me like a fellow human being — forget anything else — it made me feel so good.”

Tickets for Friday’s Give Us Your Poor Concert for Boston’s Homeless are available via Trailers for the Give Us Your Poor film are at

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