“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out” was written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 during the Prohibition era in the US, and tells the story of a millionaire who loses all his money through having a “mighty fine time”, treating his friends to as much “bootleg whiskey, champagne and wine” as they all could drink. It’s a simple morality tale – everybody wants to be your friend when you’ve money to spread around, but when you’re “down and out” – “as for friends, you don’t have any”.
The song was first recorded and made popular by Bessie Smith in 1929 – just as the bottom fell out of the stock market. On Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the New York stock exchange lost four billion dollars, resulting in panic in the days that followed, the further collapse of markets, the failure of numerous banks and the loss of the life savings of many ordinary individuals. It was the start of the Great Depression. The success of the song shows how well it resonated with what was going on in society as a result of the disastrous economic crash. Everybody could imagine beginning “to fall so low”, losing all your friends and having “nowhere to go”.
Cox’s song was a huge success for Smith, but has been covered by virtually every blues artist of note in every decade ever since, including Leadbelly, Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers, Derek and the Dominos, Rory Block, B B King and Big Joe Williams. And, of course, famously by Eric Clapton on his Unplugged album of 1992. Why has the song endured for so long and been enjoyed by so many? Well, it’s just a great song – a good story, lyrics well put together and a good tune. But as well as that, the song’s enduring appeal is that we all know that the story of the song could very well be our story – there but for the grace of God go I. Especially in these days of our own economic collapse, if could be us “falling so low”.
The problem with such a fall is that “nobody knows you when you’re down & out”. You become invisible. You’re nobody, you’re seen as having no contribution to make. You don’t count. This is one of the problems for the world’s poor. In the large cities of developing countries, slum communities sit side by side with 5 star hotels. The wealthy go about their business, often completely ignorant of the daily struggle for survival that goes on in these communities. On a visit to San Francisco last November, I watched people carrying their branded shopping bags out of the up-market stores in the Union Square area, making their way obliviously around street people living rough on the streets, many of whom were mentally challenged. It really is true – nobody knows you when you’re down and out.
This is not, however, the way that Jesus lived. The poor, the sick and those considered social outsiders because of their state of mind, their disease or their position in society were all drawn to him. Those who were well had no need of a doctor, he once said – it’s those who are sick. His concern was for those whom others considered “the least”. And if someone was to follow him, then that was to be their concern as well – “as much as you did it to the least of these brothers & sisters of mine, you did it to me”. In fact, he said that this was to be the basis of the judgement at God’s great assize at the end of all things.
Curious how often Christians have let focusing on things like the rights and wrongs of theology or internal discussions about how this or that should be organized distract them from noticing the great mass of people who are down and out and acting in a way that truly reflects the spirit of Jesus. “I said it’s true now, there ain’t no doubt, nobody knows you, when you’re down and out”. It should never be true for Jesus followers.
Eric Clapton: Nobody Knows You Unplugged
Once I lived the life of a millionaire,
Spent all my money, I just did not care.
Took all my friends out for a good time,
Bought bootleg whiskey, champagne and wine.
Then I began to fall so low,
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go.
I get my hands on a dollar again,
I’m gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins.
Cause no, no, nobody knows you
When you’re down and out.
In your pocket, not one penny,
And as for friends, you don’t have any.
When you finally get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
Said it’s mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.
When you finally get back upon your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your good old long-lost friend.
Said it’s mighty strange,
Nobody knows you,
Nobody knows you,
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out