The winter solstice arrives today in the US, the day when the sun is down and out of sight for the longest time all year. It’s a good day to break out a song with a similar theme that also comes around year after year, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, by Jimmie Cox.
Just as the seasons change as the sun gets higher and lower through the year, the narrator of this blues standard finds his company to be quite different when living the life of a free-spending millionaire than when falling on hard times. It’s a sentiment that many of the song’s listeners could relate to.
Cox published and copyrighted the song in 1923 (with the title in the registration record saying “…When You Are Down and Out”, eschewing contractions like no one I’ve heard singing the song). Its first known recording, by Blind Bobby Baker, didn’t come out until 1927. But in 1929, Bessie Smith released her own recording just in time for the big crash of the stock market that heralded the start of the Great Depression. The combination of her performance and the sudden topicality of the song for many listeners made it a big hit.
Since then, the song has been performed and recorded by a wide array of musicans, keeping it fresh even as other songs I’ve discussed so far in this calendar seem more tied to their time. Wikipedia’s list of artists who’ve covered the song reads like a Who’s Who of popular musicians of the last century, with names like Count Basie, Leadbelly, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding. I’m probably most familiar with Eric Clapton’s version, which is a staple of his live performances, and still gets played on the radio fairly often.
For me, the song is also a reminder that while the world often is the way that the singer relates, it shouldn’t be that way. True friends stick together, and support each other both when they’re riding high and when they’ve fallen low. Gary Burnett discusses the song in his “Down at the Crossroads” blues and faith blog, and notes that those of us celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday in a few days are particularly reminded not to ignore the down and out. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he will consider our treatment of the “least ones” to be how we treat him, and that if we simply invoke the name of the Lord without doing his will, he may say to us “I never knew you”.
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” joins the public domain in the US eleven days from now. By then the sun should be making notably longer appearances in the sky here. I hope, and plan to work, for brighter days for all of us in the year to come. And I hope that a growing public domain will be at least a small part of that.