Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out

Jimmie Cox, 1922

This song was written in 1922 and recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929, but it endured as the "Black anthem of the Great Depression." This is a great example of a song changing in significance over time as listeners attached new meaning. What are some possible stories behind this song when it was first written in the middle of the "Roaring 20s"? Loss of fortune from speculative investing, gambling, alcoholism, etc.

When Bessie Smith's 1929 version became a huge, enduring hit, what story did listeners hear in the same song? Financial problems from unemployment, homelessness, etc. Why did it become so popular with Depression-era listeners?

What does the line "nobody knows you when you're down and out" mean? How literal do you think this line is—was the singer actually deserted and alone? How can you feel alone in a crowd?

What does this song suggest is the relationship between money and friends? Do you agree? What songs express a different point of view?

Compare this song with "Hobo's Lullaby" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" What are some of the social results of joblessness and homelessness that these songs point out? Isolation, rejection. Which would be worse, the social and emotional aspects of being "down and out" or the financial aspects? What New Deal programs tried to help African Americans?

Do you think this song expresses a universal feeling? Why or why not? When have you felt this way? What were the circumstances? What part did money play, if any?

"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" performed by Bessie Smith on Blues Masters, Vol. 11: Classic Blues Women, Los Angeles: Rhino Records [R221134], © 1993. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

Bessie Smith, the artist on our recommended recording, was known as the "Empress of the Blues." Born in Tennessee, she first became popular in the early decades of the 1900s and grew in popularity as a blues singer in traveling tent shows, carnivals, and honky-tonks throughout the South. She was one of the best-paid singers to tour the popular "race" artist vaudeville circuit. Unfortunately, her career began to collapse in the early 1930s when she started drinking heavily. Her personal depression was made worse when her popularity faded because of the public's declining interest in the blues. She died in an automobile accident in 1937.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://genius.com/Bessie-smith-nobody-knows-when-youre-down-and-out-lyrics

Jimmie Cox (1882–1925) was a vaudeville performer and songwriter. The piece might well have disappeared into obscurity had it not been for the singer who made it a popular hit several years after it was written. One of the first of a handful of female Black blues singers, Bessie Smith (1894–1937) was said to "sum up whole tragedies in a single down-turned note" (liner notes to RESPECT: A Century of Women in Song (Rhino Records, 1999).

Jimmie Cox
Jimmie Cox

The recommended recording, which was released on Friday, September 13, 1929, epitomized the situation of many people during the Depression. It particularly mirrored the life of Bessie Smith, artist on our recommended recording, which was fraught with personal problems (see recording information on the right).

This song has been called the Black anthem of the Great Depression, parallel to "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", the white anthem of the Depression.

The phrase "down and out" is a contraction of "down on your luck and out of money," but the words "down" and "out" can imply a shortage of many other desirable attributes and commodities as well. Together, they simply mean "destitute."

Compare this song to:

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (this unit)