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.
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. 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.”
Jagger also marveled at Johnson’s songwriting skills. “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.” That sums up Johnson’s ethos pretty well, actually. “Love In Vain” may be the most chillingly powerful manifestation of desolate love in Johnson’s imposing and influential catalog.