Like many guitar-playing kids of my generation, I first met acoustic blues music on Eric Clapton’s 1992 Unlpugged album. At the time I had no idea that half of those songs came out of the deep south in the 1920s; they all came from the cassette tape as far as I was concerned. Even years later, in high school, when I discovered that Layla was originally a 70s rock anthem, I didn’t pause to wonder where the other tracks came from. Turns out they all have a story.
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out was penned by a songwriter named Jimmy Cox during the prohibition era, in 1923. But this is a song for hard times, and fittingly, it became famous when it was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929, two weeks after the stock exchange reached its all-time high and began to slide, then collapse. It goes to show that a great song alone doesn’t capture the public eye, but the right song at the right moment (with the right production and promotion) always will. Bessie Smith read the times. Sixty years later Clapton similarly intuited that the mainstream was ready to be reintroduced to country blues music. And somehow Robin Thicke knew that we were all dying to hear that Marvin Gaye song again. Both men were right. Somehow I don’t think my rehashing of this old gem will produce such a stir. This song will have to rest a few more decades before it can take the world by storm, again. Until then, enjoy my version.