Most blues fans associate this song with Bessie Smith’s version from 1929 and think it was written about the Depression, but it was originally popularized in the early 1920s by its composer, Jimmie Cox. Like most of the first round of commercial blues performers, Cox tends to be left out of histories because he did not make any recordings, and records have become our way of connecting with that past. To paraphrase his biggest hit: “Nobody knows you when you don’t record…”
Cox’s father, J.T. “Polly” Cox, was a trap drummer in African American minstrel companies around the turn of the 20th century, and Jimmie worked with minstrel shows in his youth, became a well-known comedian (billed on some occasions as “the jig Charlie Chaplin”), and went on to produce and star in his own all-black revues, including the popular Georgia Red Hots. He often performed with his wife Anna Mae and daughter Gertrude “Baby” Cox (sometimes billed as “Baby Ernestine”), who would grow up to be a featured singer at the Cotton Club with Duke Ellington’s band.
The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville, by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, provides a long-overdue view of the first generation of popular blues performers. One of the striking things it shows is that virtually all of them were billed as comedians and the style was originally dominated by male stars, though many worked with female partners. Judging by reports in the black press, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, though already well-known, did not specialize in blues until a few years later, in the mid-teens — or at least were not described as singing blues before that period.
Like other African American comedians, the pioneering male blues specialists worked in blackface and although they were often singled out for their deep connection to black vernacular culture, they seem to have owed as much to Bert Williams as to any rural southern tradition. A review of the team of Cox and Cox from 1913 (their names are given as Jimmie and Magnolia, and I’m not sure if this is Anna Mae under another name or an earlier partner)
described Jimmie as “a comedian who seems to have caught his cue from some odd looking member of his race that he might have seen on the streets,” adding, “He gets away from the stock make-up that many have… [and] has made it interesting because of the faithful imitation of what he has seen.”
Cox introduced “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” in 1922 or ’23, and Clarence Williams, who acquired the song’s publishing when he produced Bessie Smith’s recording, recalled:
Jimmie was a great all-around entertainer and actor. . . He used to dramatize this blues of his with his girl partner — show how a man can fall out with his baby, hit the road, and get down sick with the TB. Then on his last go-round he’d sing this number, and, man, he’d make you believe it. Bessie Smith used to work with Jimmie on these shows. She learned the song from him and made a record of it. . . That record of Bessie’s just went rolling around this old world.
It is not clear whether Cox sang all of “Nobody Knows You,” or performed the opening section as a recitation à la Bert Williams, which is how I do it. One of the earliest recordings of the song, by Pine Top Smith, is recited with comic inflections, and Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong did a terrific recording in the 1970s that included an exaggeratedly doleful recitation with lines like:
You can be blind, maimed and cannot see,
Both your legs could be cut off up above your knee,
You could have the tuberculosis or the German flu.
Death can be on your body playing Yankee Doodle-dee-doo…
Variants of the lyric survived in black oral culture as a spoken “toast,” accruing extensive and often obscene interpolations, and I recently heard Jerron Paxton perform a spectacular version that started with Cox’s familiar verse and chorus, sung over piano accompaniment, then expanded into a gleefully profane recitation — which, as with much of Jerron’s work, I would guess is closer to the way a lot of honky tonk entertainers performed it in the 1920s than what was captured on the uniformly censored recordings of that period. I wish I could do it similar justice, but I picked it up from Dave Van Ronk and still do it pretty much as written. (Dave, incidentally, added a nice new intro that can be heard on his final recording, …and the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended.)
As a final note: although many sources describe Bessie Smith as making the original recording of this song, Pine Top Smith’s preceded hers by a few months and the first recording was made in 1927 by Bobby Leecan, who sang a quite different lyric. Since there was no sheet music version, we have no way of knowing whether Leecan’s variant was his own rewrite, or was picked up from another entertainer, or may even have been Cox’s original lyric — which is an apt reminder of how little we know about the past in general, and early blues in particular.