A Song for Walter Lee Younger
By Bridgette Ramirez
February 26, 2018
Ever heard a song that speaks to your soul? Music often has a way of expressing what you could never put into words. In the case of Walter Lee Younger, protagonist of A Raisin in the Sun, that song might be “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Written by Jimmy Cox during the Roaring Twenties, the song is a cautionary tale about the fickleness of fortune and the friends that come with it. The song echoes the psyche of Walter Lee, who dreams of becoming a successful entrepreneur and giving his family the good life. As he seeks his fortune, however, he ostracizes himself from the very people he needs most—his family.
Sam Cooke’s soul version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which you can listen to on our Raisin inspiration playlist, evokes Walter Lee’s despair and loneliness when he loses everything in his pursuit of happiness.
Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spending my money, I didn’t care
Taking my friends out for a mighty good time
I bought that bootleg liquor, champagne and wine
Oh, but then my money began to fall so low
Couldn’t find no friends, I had no place to go
And if I ever get my hands on a dollar again
I’m gonna hold on till that eagle grins
‘Cause I found out that nobody wants you
Nobody wants you when you’re down and out
When in your pocket, oh, there’s, not one penny
You found out your friends, oh, you just haven’t got any
Every time Walter Lee tries to adopt a luxurious attitude towards money, he is quickly shut down by his life circumstances. He tosses his son an extra coin in front of a disapproving Ruth (“take a taxicab to school or something!”), only to realize later that he doesn’t have enough for his own carfare. He throws all of his share of his deceased father’s insurance money into a liquor store, only to realize that he has been scammed and the money he wanted so desperately has been stolen by his so-called friend. Abandoned, he wallows in his anonymity. Nobody wants you when you’re down and out.
Walter Lee not only loses his dream, but his own self-worth. When he is then presented with a double-edged opportunity, Walter Lee must decide whether to make a last-ditch effort to preserve his pride, or to stand up for his family’s rights and against the larger social and economic systems stacked against them.