Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Jimmie Cox

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Jimmie Cox is simple, yet profound. It is one that speaks of wealth, poverty, and friendship. The speaker in this poem experiences the loss of all that he once had. He loses his wealth, his luxuries, and his friends. Out of all that he lost, he feels the loss of his friends most acutely. The poem reveals the heart of the speaker in that he cares for other human beings more than he cares for money. The reason that he misses his money, is because he could treat his friends and be surrounded by people. His despair in losing his money and his friends can be read as both a warning and a comfort.

 

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out Analysis

Lines 1-8

Once I lived the life of a millionaire

Spending my money and I didn’t care

Taking my friends out for a mighty fine time

Drinking high priced liquor, champagne and wine

When I began to fall so low

I didn’t have a friend and no place to go

If I ever get my hands on a dollar again

I’m gonna hold on to it till the eagle grins

The speaker immediately establishes a tone of nostalgia, and the reader instinctively knows that he is talking about times past. He talks about a time in his life that was carefree. He speaks of all the luxuries that he knew during this time. He treated his friends often, treating them to all kinds of entertainment. He describes the fine drinks that he indulged in during this time. But then, in line five, there is a sudden and abrupt shift. The speaker says, “when I began to fall so low…” and the reader knows that something has changed. The speaker is now bringing the reader from the reminiscent past to the reality of the present. Then, in line six, he describes the effect of his having fallen so low. He claims that he “didn’t have a friend and no place to go”. The reader is brought to question the location of those friends whom the speaker treated so well. As soon as his money disappeared, his friends disappeared too. No one stayed with him through his times of poverty. Not one of his friends from his past offered him a place to stay. In a short time, it would seem, this speaker went from riches to rags. He spent all that he had so carelessly that he was left with nothing at all, and his friends disappeared just as quickly as his money. Then, the speaker makes a promise to himself. Now that he has experienced poverty first hand, he declares that if he should ever come into any money again, be it just a dollar, he would “hold on to it till the eagle grins”. This is a man who has come to understand the true value of money. It wasn’t until he went without it, that he could grasp the true value of it. Likewise, he is a man who has learned the value of true friendship. He has been forced to realize that the friends he had at one time were not ones worth having, for they abandoned him when he was at his weakest.

 

Lines 9-16

Nobody knows you

When you’re down and out

In your pocket, not one penny

And your friends, you haven’t any

But as soon as you get on your feet again

Ev’rybody wants to be your long lost friend

It’s mighty strange, without a doubt

Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

The title of the poem can be found here, in lines nine through ten. His own loathing provides a warning to those with wealth. He claims that when life hit him hard, no one was there to claim to know him. He then further describes the true nature of his poverty in that he had “not one penny” in his pocket. The reader feels the true gravity of his poverty because he has not always known it. It is one thing to live in poverty, but it is another to have experienced great wealth and luxury, only to be reduced to poverty in the end. With line thirteen, there is another shift which offers a ray of hope for the speaker. He says, “But as soon as you get on your feet again ev’rybody wants to be your long lost friend”. He ponders this and decides that friendship is “mighty strange without a doubt”. He thinks it very odd that no one should claim to know him when he was “down and out”. This last line gives the reader a little bit more insight into the character of the speaker. When he had great wealth, he treated his friends. The last line reveals that he most likely cared for his friends in a very real way. Perhaps this is why he spent his money on them so indulgently. The reason he finds it so strange that he should be abandoned in his poverty is because he truly cared about his friends, not just their money or social status. Thus, when he lost all that he had and no one claimed to know him, he felt it to be very strange. This poem is not only the story of the speaker’s life, but also a warning and/or a comfort to the readers. Anyone who reads this poem is either wealthy or he is not. To the wealthy, the poem is a warning to be shrewd and to be aware that the friends that are there now, may not always be. To the poor, the poem offers comfort. Many without money think that they will be made content with a little wealth. The speaker reveals that wealth, luxury, and sometimes even friends are fickle. They will come and go. The poor person, then can take comfort in the friends that he does have, for they are true friends.

 

Jimmie Cox Background

Ironically, Jimmie Cox earned fame for this very poem which he wrote in the depression era, shortly before the start of the Great Depression. Cox was sure to have experienced both wealth and poverty, as he was an American citizen during America’s best and worst times. He experienced the thriving of the country, as well as its decline into economic depression. He put these words to song, but they became famous when Bessie Smith put the words to music. Since then, a great number of artists have put music to these words. Jimmie Cox lived from 1882 until 1925.

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