Johnson’s performance – vocal accompanied by his finger-style acoustic guitar playing – has been described as “devastatingly bleak”. He recorded the song in 1937 during his last recording session and in 1939 it was issued as the last of his original 78 rpm records.
If you’re looking for the songwriter and performer from the first half of the 20th century who had the most profound influence on the modern world of popular music, you can start with Robert Johnson and most likely end your search there. The longing, the pain, the notion that the world was always going to be one-up on you and singing about it was your only resort if not a consolation, all of those Johnson traits would survive intact into the rock and roll era, although his songs could cut even deeper than those of his musical descendants because of their unadulterated potency and unfiltered anguish.
When Johnson was singing about love, or the absence of it, the effect could be practically overwhelming even as his performance seemed so effortless. “Love In Vain” is one of his standards and the poetic truth of the title says so much. A quick trip through Johnson’s catalog reveals that time and again the search for love is nothing but a futile chase that leads to something somehow even more woeful than heartbreak.
“Love In Vain” is deceptively simple, just three verses. On the surface, the song is about a potential train trip that the narrator wishes to take with his woman only for her to leave him behind. But Johnson was ahead of his time in terms of his usage of metaphor. Since the train scenario was something his country blues audience well understood, he utilized it to plumb the depths of loneliness and desperation to which the narrator is reduced.
One of his influences was Leroy Carr, whose “How Long Blues” (1928) was an early favorite.
Johnson later used the melody from Carr’s “When the Sun Goes Down” (1935) as the basis for “Love in Vain”.
He does all of that so subtly that the weary hurt in his voice is the only clue for much of the song. Notice the fact that he is following her down to the station, a hint at the balance of power in their relationship. When the train arrives, the problems really start: “When the train rolled up to the station, I looked her in the eye/ Well I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome, and I could not help but cry.” That moment of knee-buckling realization is something to which anyone who’s ever been there can relate.
Johnson saves his deepest wounds for the final verse. The vivid closing lines are almost surreal in their depiction of the train’s departure. “When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind,” Johnson sings. “Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind.” That kind of imagery transcends Johnson’s era and is the kind of thing that any modern writer would be thrilled to pen.
For rock audiences, their introduction to “Love In Vain” likely came through the Rolling Stones deeply felt version on 1969’s “Let It Bleed” album.
With Mick Jagger pouring out his soul and special guest Ry Cooder adding a lovely mandolin solo, it beefs up Johnson’s original and twists the music somewhat, as Jagger noted in a 1995 interview
We changed the arrangement quite a lot from Robert Johnson’s,” he said. “We put in extra chords that aren’t there on the Robert Johnson version. Made it more country. And that’s another strange song, because it’s very poignant. Robert Johnson was a wonderful lyric writer, and his songs are often about love, but they’re desolate.
Keith Richards also stated
For a time we thought the songs that were on that first album were the only recordings [Robert Johnson had] made, and then suddenly around ’67 or ’68 up comes this second [bootleg] collection that included Love in Vain. Love in Vain was such a beautiful song. Mick and I both loved it, and at the time I was working and playing around with Gram Parsons, and I started searching around for a different way to present it, because if we were going to record it there was no point in trying to copy the Robert Johnson style or ways and styles. We took it a little bit more country, a little bit more formalized, and Mick felt comfortable with that.
Sometimes I wonder… myself (about how we developed that arrangement). I don’t know! (laughs) We only knew the Robert Johnson version. At the time we were kicking it around, I was into country music – old white country music, ’20s and ’30s stuff, and white gospel. Somewhere I crossed over into this more classical mode. Sometimes things just happen. We were sitting in the studio, saying, Let’s do “Love in Vain” by Robert Johnson. Then I’m trying to figure out some nuances and chords, and I start to play it in a totally different fashion. Everybody joins in and goes, Yeah, and suddenly you’ve got your own stamp on it. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to top Robert Johnson’s guitar playing.
The popularity of their adaptation led to a lawsuit over the copyright. In 2000, the court held that the songs were not in the public domain and that legal title belonged to the Estate of Robert Johnson and its successors.
Robert Johnson’s original “Love in Vain” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame as part of the 2011 “Robert Johnson Centennial” celebrations.
Credit is given to Jim Beviglia of americansongwriter.com for content.