Triad-based band Haymarket Riot is putting its commitment to help the homeless into action with a new song, “Tom & Jackie,” a soulful duet based on Tom Garner and Jackie Shambley, a couple that has endured years of homelessness and housing insecurity. Singer/songwriter Charlotte Whitted penned the song on the heels of Haymarket Riot’s participation in The Healing Blues project, a collaboration of songwriters and homeless storytellers spearheaded by former Greensboro College art professor Ted Efremoff, assisted by Dave Fox, another professor, to benefit the Interactive Resource Center, and the successful release of the Healing Blues CD Vol. 1.
Musical partner Jon Epstein, founder of Haymarket Riot and bass player for the band, wanted to explore the issues of homelessness further and look for a way to directly make a difference beyond raising awareness. After laying bedding tracks with drummer Phil Holder and guitarist Jim O’Gara at Earthtones Studio in Greensboro last year, the song lay dormant while the musicians struggled to coordinate schedules to bring the song to fruition. Finding support for the song’s recording through executive producer Brent Bristow, Owner of Salem Music, and securing the stellar singing talents of Chuck Johnson for the duet, HR went into the studio committed to the songs completion. Sound engineer Geoff Weber helped elicit the 70’s vibe Jon and Charlotte wanted in the final mix with acoustic 12-string and electric Rickenbacker guitars, but let the vocals drive the song.
Salem Music and Haymarket Riot are offering “Tom & Jackie” for download through YES Weekly for $1.00 donations, which will go directly to Tom & Jackie to keep their garden growing and a roof over their heads. Download at BANDCAMP.com. For more information about Haymarket Riot, go to Facebook.com/hmriot.
THE STORY BEHIND THE SONG
Whitted recounts the inspiration for “Tom & Jackie:”
I was introduced to Tom and Jackie over breakfast at Jimmy the Greek’s by Jon Epstein, my musical partner. We had written songs for the Healing Blues project to give voice to homeless individuals, but were interested in learning more about what it was like to be a homeless couple.
I watched as Tom, a thin but striking man, recounted some childhood sorrows, his service in the military, his struggles with alcohol (which he gave up several years ago), his estrangement from his family, his faith, his varying levels of success and struggles with employment and training opportunities, his health issues and his difficulty securing consistent housing, and his advocacy efforts with Occupy Homeless. He relayed some insight into what a day is like in the life of a homeless person, how shoes wear out faster than anything else. There’s always someone he knows who is worse off and needs the few dollars he comes across. He feels compelled to help because he knows what it feels like, even if he needs similar help too.
Jackie, a handsome woman with long straight silver hair and a shy smile, ordered breakfast for both of them, knowing exactly what Tom would prefer. She described her childhood with drug-addicted, absentee parents, having to shoulder large responsibilities to raise the younger kids on a farm, trying to help her brother after he was sent to prison, trying to flee an abusive marriage with her children and the consequences once her estranged husband found them. She remembers the daily fear for her safety once she lost consistent housing, on some days feeling more unsafe inside shelters than on the streets. Safety is a huge concern to the vulnerable and protection an expensive commodity at times.
Their partnership is a delicate one. Tom has an energetic, compelling presence. He has many ideas, some scattered, some intensely detailed. Clearly he’s passionate about the collective voice of the homeless being heard and heeded. Starting Occupy Homeless to connect the homeless through the internet has become part of his identity. He’s the driver.
Jackie has a calming presence, quietly steering the energy Tom brings to the conversation from the ethereal to the practical. She provides reassuring focus to the conversation. She’s the rudder.
Balance in any partnership is important, and maintaining it difficult in the best of circumstances, but especially challenging when facing homelessness, food insecurity, constant stress. Tom and Jackie must put conscious and consistent effort into their relationship to make it work. The pressures sometimes cause one or the other to dominate or retaliate, to turn away instead of turn toward each other, to lay blame. Bringing back the balance takes pride-swallowing apology, forgiveness, recommitment. Every day is hard, but they try to find small joys to give them hope.
When asked ‘What is the dream of the homeless?,’ they described a situation where they might gather enough money to buy a used RV, to become part of the ‘mobile homeless,’ parking it somewhere warm in the winter. Their ideal is to buy a large tract of land where several homeless people can live together, growing gardens of food and helping each other, in a safe area like the “Hundred Acre Wood,” a place of fiction A.A. Milne imagined for Winnie the Pooh and his friends. Since they are both in their 6’s now, they prefer medical staff on-site, in this idyllic place, to address the needs of an aging homeless population. It’s a dream, but even the homeless are entitled to a dream.
Since that breakfast encounter, Tom and Jackie have been able to secure a small modest home in a rural area near Mount Airy. It needs many repairs, but does provide the shelter they need. They are raising a garden and a few chickens, trying to take care of each other. After hearing a mix of the song, Tom responded, “We love it very much, but it’s awful hard to hear one’s story told. We’re both teary-eyed. It continues to humble us. It is our hope that others will be drawn to it and its message of hope…endurance. We’ve been slow dancing, holding hands…”
It’s my hope that “Tom & Jackie” resonates beyond their situation, to connect with any listener keeping a dream alive in the face of adversity. Maybe it will remind couples with a fragile partnership to nurture it and be kind to each other. Maybe it’ll just be a good listen with a groove people like. I’ll take it. Just give it a listen.