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"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" lyrics, told from the point of view of somebody who was once wealthy during the Prohibition era, reflect on the fleeting nature of material wealth and the friendships that come and go with it. As a vaudeville-style blues, it was popularized by Bessie Smith, the preeminent female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Since her 1929 recording, it has been interpreted by numerous musicians in a variety of styles. Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" became one of her biggest hits, and today, it "more than any other, is the song that most people associate with Bessie Smith". Due to the popularity of Bessie Smith's recording, numerous musicians began interpreting the song in recordings of their own.
When he was an art student in the early 1960s, Eric Clapton was attracted to London's folk-music scene and the fingerpicking acoustic guitar-style of Big Bill Broonzy. Along with "Key to the Highway", "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" was one of the first songs that Clapton learned to play in this style. In 1970, he recorded a group version with his band, Derek and the Dominos, for their debut album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. In 1992, Clapton recorded another rendition for the MTV Unplugged series. In keeping with the show's theme, the song was performed in an acoustic style. Clapton recounted: "I also enjoyed going back and playing the old stuff like 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out', which was how it all started back in Kingston [University] so long ago." (Wikipedia)