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

This song has a lesson in friendship loyalty. It tells how the people who call you their friend when you’re doing well are often nowhere to be found if you then find yourself on hard times. But if you succeed in overcoming your woes, they’ll be at your door again professing that earlier friendship. Although I first thought this was a song from the Great Depression of the ’30s, it was actually written in 1923 by Jimmy Cox and quickly became a blues standard. In ’23 the post-World War I depression was over and the country was entering an era of prosperity we called the “roaring twenties.” It seemed strange to associate such a song about being “down and out” to such an upbeat time, but Cox was sending out a warning about how fickle friends can be when your condition changes. In that context, it makes perfect sense.

The first known recording of this song dates back to 1927 by Piedmont blues singer Bobby Leecan. The version best known back then was recorded by Bessie Smith, the best known female blues singer of the ’20s and ’30s. Her nickname was “Empress of the Blues.” She recorded the song in May, 1929, but in a remarkable twist of fate, that recording wasn’t released until September 13th of that year, the Friday now known as “Black Friday,” the day the stock market began its crash that took us into the Great Depression. The song remained popular through the ’30s and up to the ’50s and was played many times by well known groups and soloists of the day. It took and upswing in popularity in the “folk music revival” of the late ’50s through the ’60s. I first became aware of the song from The Chad Mitchell Trio 1963 album Singing Our Mind.

But probably the best known version came from rock blues legend Eric Clapton. Clapton first learned the song in the ’60s when he was an art student in London. It was one of the first songs he learned to play fingerpicking style. His first recording of the song was in ’70 with his band for their album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. It was Duane Allman’s first song with his band. Duane had previously recorded the song with his brother Greg, with The Allman Brothers Band. It was something he had in common with Clapton when they joined up. Then, in 1992, Clapton did an acoustic version for the MTV Unplugged series, in keeping with the theme. That performance was then released the same year on his album Unplugged. From my acoustic guitar perspective, that was his finest album. In 1994, he included a live performance of the song on his album, Live at the Fillmore

I first learned this song back in the early ’60s, and the guitar solo in it has always been one of my favorites. The Epiphone Serenader 12-string that I play on this song once belonged to my younger brother, Pat, but neither of us remember how it ended up in my hands. When I got it, the top was slightly caved between the sound hole and the bridge, undoubtedly from the extra pressure of the 6 octave strings not  present on a common 6-string guitar. I detuned it two half steps from standard guitar tuning to reduce the pressure and I haven’t had a problem since. Although I’ve been told that modern 12-strings can be safely tuned to standard guitar tuning, I still detune my Larrivee 12-string two half steps as well. The Larrivee has a larger body than the Epiphone, giving it more low end. I decided to pull out the Epiphone for this song so the guitar part didn’t have as much low end “boom.” I also chose to play it without a thumb pick, again to soften the bass some. The preview linked in below opens with a guitar solo on the Epiphone.

Listen to a 1 minute preview of this track here: