Bessie Smith – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out

This is my first song pick for Hanspostcard’s song draft. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.

I got into Bessie Smith from listening to Janis Joplin and reading about her. Bessie’s voice sends chills up my spine…that is my litmus test. This particular song grabs me because of Smith’s voice and vibe of the recording. She sings it, means it, and she lived it. The sound of the record and her voice is just unbeatable. Yes we have digital now but digital could not give you this sound.

If you are not familiar with her…do yourself a favor and check her out.

I can imagine Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Clara Bow all listening to this in the 20s and 30s.

This song was written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 just as the roaring twenties were taking off. There are many versions but Bessie Smith recorded hers in 1929 with a small trumpet section. It was released right before the stock market crashed and the start of the Great Depression.

Many artists (Peter, Paul and Mary, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Dave Van Ronk, Otis Redding, Popa Chubby, The Allman Brothers Band, Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Katie Melua, Dutch Tilders, Steve Winwood with The Spencer Davis Group, Emmy Rossum, Leslie Odom Jr.) have covered this song but Bessie’s is my go to version.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894. She lost her dad while she was an infant and her mom when she was 7-8 years old. She was raised by her tough older sister. To help support her orphaned siblings, Bessie began her career as a Chattanooga street musician, singing in a duo with her brother Andrew to earn money to support their poor family.

She is credited with recording more than 160 songs between 1923 and 1933. Smith performed on stage throughout the southern United States and recorded with such jazz greats as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins.

Before the Great Depression, Bessie was the highest paid black entertainer in the world, collecting as much as two thousand dollars a week to perform. She was accompanied by great musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman.

This song was recorded New York City, May 15, 1929.

Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin and Norah Jones who have all given her credit as their inspiration.

On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling from a concert in Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, with her companion Richard Morgan. She was taken to a hospital, where she died.

By the time of her death, Bessie was known around the world appear with the best players of the day at theaters coast to coast. Bessie’s voice and showmanship drove her from poverty to international fame as a singer of blues tunes, many of which she wrote and co-wrote.

Bessie Smith has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, winning posthumous awards for her 1923 single “Downhearted Blues,” 1925 single “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, and a 1928 single “Empty Bed Blues.” Smith has also been honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

Janis Joplin: “Back in Port Arthur, I’d heard some Lead Belly records, and, well, if the blues syndrome is true, I guess it’s true about me…So I began listening to blues and folk music. I bought Bessie Smith and Odetta records, and one night, I was at this party and I did an imitation of Odetta. I’d never sung before, and I came out with this huge voice.”

Nobody Knows You’re When You’re Down and Out

Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spending my money, I didn’t care
I carried my friends out for a good time
Bying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine

Then I began to fall so low
I didn’t have a friend, and no place to go
So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again
I’m gonna hold on to it till them eagle’s green

Nobody knows you when you down and out
In my pocket not one penny
And my friends I haven’t any
But If I ever get on my feet again
Then I’ll meet my long lost friend
It’s mighty strange, without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you down and out
I mean when you down and out

Mmmmmmmm…. when you’re down and out
Mmmmmmmm… not one penny
And my friends I haven’t any
Mmmmmmmm… Well I felt so low
Nobody wants me round their door
Mmmmmmmm… Without a doubt,
No man can use you wen you down and out
I mean when you down and out


Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

11 thoughts on “Bessie Smith – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”

    1. 9 more…that is it. it’s just 10 altogether and I already have the next one done… Many will be repeats from when I first started…it gives me a chance to write them right…I didn’t know what I was doing before.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I’ve read a bit about Bessie Smith because of the Joplin influence, but I haven’t listened to her. I think I’ve heard her voice on some very old cartoons…but I’m not sure. Sounds like her though. Thanks for sharing this. Very interesting story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I became a fan of silent movies when I was in my 20s and I became interested in the blues and jazz from that era. It is interesting…the 20s were the 60s in a lot of ways as far as liberating…then the Depression hit and it went back to being ultra conservative…
      That voice of hers was something.

      Liked by 1 person

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