SINGLE: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out / Take It Right Back
ARTIST: Bessie Smith
RYM RANK: #587
RYM RATING: 3.98 (average of 118 ratings)
The era of the 1920s, oh so romantically labelled as the “Roaring Twenties”, was a prosperous period for the many few; a freshly mobilized workforce and a laissez-faire mode of economics created conditions whereby the American dream of achieving unimaginable wealth and happiness was more feasible than ever before. Consequently, a new breed of affluent socialites was born, consisting of seemingly self-achieved men and women (though mostly just men) who could spend the merry days of post-Great War living as if it was heaven on Earth.
However, beneath the celebration were inklings of pessimism and one modest example would be a little blues standard called “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, written by Jimmy Cox in 1923. The song is a stark, foreboding morality tale about a Gatsby-esque player whose life goes from riches to rags, recalling early fortunes only to lament about a despairing, mysterious fall from grace. Considering how monetary success was a growing phenomenon at the time rather than a dwindling one, it is difficult to surmise the relevancy that this sad ballad would have had upon its conception.
But times change, and so does context.
When the stocks collapsed in 1929, the American dream turned into a nightmare. The crippled financial market, in combination with horrid drought and disastrous austerity measures, gave rise to the Great Depression and almost overnight, the razzle-dazzle of the Roaring Twenties became a bygone era. Appropriately, it was during this harsh turn-of-the-decade that blues music started to break into the mainstream. White listeners were now better able to emphasize with the type of somber, brittle music that Black Americans had been perfecting for the past few decades and one of the genre’s earliest divas was hefty diva by the name of Bessie Smith.
Having gotten her start on Broadway during the 1910s, Bessie’s boisterous contralto and uniquely ragtime-tinted manner of blues caught the eye of producers around the mid-1920s, allowing her to release a series of singles that would transcend racial boundaries and earn her near-universal acclaim across the United States before her tragic death in ‘37. Her cover of Cox’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” – presciently recorded and released several months before the market crash – is a stellar demonstration of her gentle style, hitting a note of bittersweetness that was painfully true to the grim realities of the billowing recession while also being mellow and pleasant enough in composition to remain easy on the bitter moods of the struggling masses.
From an artistic standpoint, the track offers few surprises but I suppose therein lies the reliable charm of classic blues. Perhaps the sole standout element of the song that has not been eroded by the disciplines of time is Bessie’s booming, limitless voice – showing off a control and emotiveness that would perhaps remain unrivaled among her female counterparts until the arrival of Aretha Franklin. So indeed, while I may struggle to fully appreciate the objective qualities of this tamer vaudeville derivative of early blues, I write this review with a hopefully proper understanding of what Bessie meant to all the lonely, defeated Gatsbys of her time.
Though not nearly as fondly cherished as it’s A-side, “Take It Right Back” is my personal favorite among the two songs. Accompanied by a modest but pleasantly bluesy chord progression played on a lonely piano, Bessie sings a daringly feminist testament about her purported displeasures over the vices of her male partner(?). Her delivery is sharp as always but what’s impressive is the registry of aggression and anger that manages to seep through the intimate production. Bessie effectively communicates a brutally sincere message from the all-too-ignored perspective of battered African-American women who have encountered particularly high hurdles on their long fought and sadly still incomplete journey towards respect and equality. Realizing the unfavourable circumstances of many Black women of her time gives one an even greater appreciation of Bessie’s short-lived but long-loved career.