Love in Vain Blues: Robert Johnson; the Rolling Stones; Eric Clapton

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Love in Vain Blues. This is one of the great ‘roots’ blues songs, originally recorded in the 1930s. We will start with the original song by blues legend Robert Johnson. We will then review covers by the Rolling Stones, and by Eric Clapton.

Robert Johnson and Love in Vain Blues:

Robert Johnson is arguably the most important of all Delta blues musicians. In an earlier blog post we reviewed his song Crossroads Blues, an iconic tune covered by the British blues power trio Cream, among others.

In another blog post we reviewed Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago. This is also an extremely famous blues song and a great jam tune, with scores of covers. So here we will give a brief review of Robert Johnson’s life and career, at least what little we know about it.

The details of Robert Johnson’s life are shrouded in the mists of time. He is believed to have been born in Hazelhurst, MS in 1911. He performed as an itinerant musician in the bar circuit in the Mississippi Delta, but during his career also traveled further afield to Chicago, New York and Canada.

"Photo-booth self-portrait” of Johnson, believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. From the Granger Collection, New York.

“Photo-booth self-portrait” of Johnson, believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. From the Granger Collection, New York.

At left is one of only two photos in the public domain that definitely show Robert Johnson. This is the so-called “photo-booth self-portrait” of Johnson, believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. Check out Johnson’s exceptionally long fingers.

Johnson died in 1938 at age 27. He is rumored to have been poisoned, perhaps by a jealous husband. We don’t know much about Robert Johnson, but apparently he had a distinct fondness for both liquor and women.

We also know that he adopted at least eight different names during his career, which makes it difficult to trace his travels in the South. It is believed that he may have had a woman in every town that he traveled through on his performing circuit.

Johnson would be completely unknown today, were it not for the products of two recording sessions. The first took place at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio in 1936. There, Johnson recorded 16 different songs plus multiple takes of several songs. These include Cross Road Blues, Kind-Hearted Woman Blues and Sweet Home Chicago.

The second session took place in Dallas in 1937. On this occasion Johnson recorded 13 songs plus some multiple takes, including Hellhound on My Trail and Love in Vain Blues.

Robert Johnson Studio Portrait, Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935 ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation

Robert Johnson Studio Portrait, Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935 ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation

At left is the second known photograph of Robert Johnson. This is a studio portrait taken by Hooks Bros. in Memphis, circa 1935. The assumption is that the photo was to be used for publicity purposes for his records.

During his lifetime Johnson was a rather minor figure, known primarily to a small group of musicians who frequented the Mississippi juke-joint scene. Between his death in 1938 and 1961, Johnson was probably known only to a very small group of blues musicologists and collectors.

One of his most famous songs is called Crossroads Blues. It is thought to describe a classic confrontation between a traveling musician meets a mysterious stranger, quite probably the Devil. In return for his soul, the artist is awarded brilliant musical gifts.

In fact, some bluesmen saw Johnson’s career in this light. Southern blues musician Son House remarked that early in his career, Johnson appeared to be a musician with mediocre talent, and deficient guitar playing technique. However, after being away for a while, upon his return Johnson had made remarkable strides in his music.

The idea of the blues as being the “Devil’s music,” as opposed to gospel or “God’s music” is certainly connected with the legend of trading one’s eternal soul for musical genius. Of course, a more pedestrian explanation for Johnson’s improvement may have been diligent practice and competition with his peers.

In 1961, on the urging of the great popular music entrepreneur John Hammond, Jr., Columbia Records issued a compilation of his work titled King of the Delta Blues Singers.

That album was a real bombshell. It allowed Johnson’s work to be recognized by blues musicians around the world. In 1961, an artist who had been a relatively minor figure in the Delta music scene during his lifetime, and who had died at age 27, was suddenly celebrated as a supremely talented songwriter and musician.

Upon hearing Johnson’s songs, blues artists began to copy his virtuoso guitar work, and to release covers of his songs. This was particularly true in the Chicago blues scene, where musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf had emigrated from the South.

Johnson’s work was also noted by musicians like Eric Clapton and Brian Jones, who were leaders in a blues revival movement in Britain. Jones introduced his Rolling Stones bandmates to Johnson’s music. In this post we will include covers by both the Stones and by Eric Clapton.

Robert Johnson's Love in Vain Blues, on Vocalion Records.

Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain Blues, on Vocalion Records.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were also influenced by Johnson’s music, and their blues-rock group Led Zeppelin later issued a cover of Traveling Riverside Blues.

Love in Vain Blues was recorded by Robert Johnson in Dallas in his final recording session in 1937. In 1939 the song became the final one of his songs to be released as a 78 rpm record .  At left is the record issued on the Vocalion label.

The song describes the heartbreak of a man following the end of a love affair. He uses the metaphor of a departing train to describe his sense of loss.

I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand
And I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand.
Well it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain
All my love’s in vain.

When the train rolled up to the station, I looked her in the eye
When the train rolled up to the station, and I looked her in the eye.
Well I was lonesome I felt so lonesome, and I could not help but cry.
All my love’s in vain

The train it left the station, was two lights on behind
When the train it left the station, was two lights on behind
Well the blue light was my blues and the red light was my mind

Like nearly all blues songs, Johnson’s Love in Vain Blues incorporates some elements from earlier tunes. Apparently the melody of Love In Vain Blues is similar to that in the song When the Sun Goes Down by bluesman Leroy Carr.

Also, the lyrics in the final verse of this song are similar to those in the song Flying Crow Blues by a duo called the Shreveport Home Wreckers.

Of course, there are no videos of Robert Johnson performing. Here is the audio of the two takes he recorded of Love in Vain Blues.

This song presents a heartbreaking tale of loss and sorrow. Critic Thomas Ward states that
The songs [sic] opening verse is worth quoting in full, it’s arguably the finest few lines that Johnson ever wrote … Never has Johnson’s guitar been so subtle, so much in the background – the song’s success is from the artist’s longing vocals, and as such it’s devastatingly bleak.

At the end of the song, Johnson calls out the name “Willie Mae,” his lover at the time. Apparently she did not hear the song until years later, and was visibly moved when she heard Johnson’s shout-out to her.

In 1990 Columbia Records issued a 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. As advertised, this contained all 29 of Johnson’s recordings. By this time Johnson’s legacy was sufficiently well established that it sold a million copies.

Today, Robert Johnson is considered a giant in the blues genre, and one of the great precursors to rock and roll. To give you some idea of his stature, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, as one of the first three “early influence” artists.

In addition, the Rock Hall of Fame included four songs by Johnson in their list of The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Johnson was also listed at #5 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.  Finally,
In 1990 Spin magazine rated him first in its 35 Guitar Gods listing.

The Rolling Stones and Love in Vain:

The British rock band The Rolling Stones is one of our favorite groups. They have featured in a number of our earlier blog posts. In terms of the Stones’ own songs, we earlier reviewed Under My Thumb, discussed Brown Sugar, and wrote about Satisfaction.

We have also discussed the Stones’ covers of other songs in a blog post on It’s All Over Now by the Valentinos; a post on Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen; a post on Ain’t Too Proud to Beg by the Temptations; a post on Irma Thomas’ Time Is On My Side; and a post on Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away.

The Rolling Stones were initially leaders in a British blues revival movement. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, classmates and friends from primary school, met up when they were both in college. Upon realizing that they shared an obsession with the blues, they set about assembling a band.

After a few early personnel changes, the group settled on a quintet. They are shown below in a publicity photo for their June, 1965 album Satisfaction. From L: bassist Bill Wyman; lead vocalist Mick Jagger; guitarist Keith Richards; guitarist Brian Jones; drummer Charlie Watts.

Amazingly enough, the Stones are still going strong and even touring 50 years later. Furthermore, they have experienced a surprisingly small number of personnel changes over the years. They jettisoned Brian Jones in 1969; Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor left the group at the end of 1974; and former Faces’ guitarist Ronnie Wood has been with the Stones since 1975. Bassist Bill Wyman, the oldest member of the Stones, left the group in 1993.

The original bandleader and founder of the group was Brian Jones. In the beginning, he was the most accomplished musician, playing guitar with Alexis Korner’s influential band Blues Incorporated. Initially the Stones played almost exclusively covers, becoming leaders in an American blues revival movement in London.

However, Brian Jones became marginalized as Keith and Mick began writing rock songs for the group. This moved the band’s focus from blues to hard rock, and shifted the leadership to Richards and Jagger.

As a result, Jones became less involved with the group’s decisions. His drug use also became a serious issue for the band, and degraded his performance as a musician. The Stones sacked Jones in summer 1969, and tragically he was found dead in the swimming pool in his home just a month later.

Jones was then replaced by Mick Taylor, who had previously been the lead guitarist for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. As we will see, Mick Taylor was a consummate professional, and he added some stunning slide guitar licks to the Stones’ arsenal. Unfortunately, Taylor left the Stones in 1974, after just five years with the group.

We will make a digression here to discuss the American rock music ABC TV show Shindig! Until 1964, Hootenanny had been a popular TV show that featured folk music.

However, the British Invasion had basically gutted the folk music scene, so Hootenanny was jettisoned and Shindig! replaced it. During its two-year run, Shindig! introduced a number of new pop stars, including Lesley Gore, the Beach Boys, the Supremes and James Brown.

One of the things I enjoyed about Shindig!, particularly in contrast to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, was that while Bandstand increasingly featured performers simply lip-synching to their records, Shindig! invariably insisted on live performance.

The Shindig! house band featured some of the greatest session musicians in the business. In fact, the “Shin-Diggers” included musicians such as Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Billy Preston. Later, a number of these West Coast session musicians became known as the Wrecking Crew for their work with literally hundreds of artists in the fields of rock, pop and jazz.

In May, 1965, the Rolling Stones were invited to be the headliners on Shindig! My understanding is that the Stones refused to appear on the show unless the American blues vocalist Chester Burnett, known as Howlin’ Wolf, also appeared.

In making this demand, the Stones were reminding their audience of their early incarnation as a blues cover band. So here is “bonus video” of Howlin’ Wolf’s performance of the song How Many More Years, on Shindig!

I have to think that for many of the teeny-boppers who watched Shindig!, the sight of the gritty blues vocals and harmonica of Howlin’ Wolf might have triggered an “OMG!” moment. However, I find his performance electrifying.

The pianist who appears in foreground at the beginning of the song was Shin-Digger Billy Preston.  Note that the Stones are seated reverentially behind Mr. Burnett.

Like so many blues aficionados, the Stones also had been impressed with the release of the Robert Johnson catalogue.  Following the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961, bootleg copies of additional Johnson songs were issued during the period 1967 to 1968.

This made an immediate impact on the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards has noted
For a time we thought the songs that were on that first album [King of the Delta Blues] 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.

Here are the Rolling Stones in a live performance of Love in Vain. This took place in a concert in Texas in 1972.

To my mind, this is an absolutely spectacular version of this song, one of my favorite Stones performances of all time. First off, Mick is in terrific form. His intonation and raw power are simply stunning in this tune.

The guitar work is also amazing. Mick Taylor crafts a beautiful slide guitar part, which is complemented by Keith on electric guitar. The result is a powerful, haunting and desolate tune.

Note that the Stones made considerable changes in Robert Johnson’s original song. They included additional chords and subtly converted it to a blues-country hybrid. As explained by Keith Richards,
I started searching around for a different way to present it, because … there was no point in trying to copy the Robert Johnson style … We took it a little bit more country, a little bit more formalized, and Mick felt comfortable with that.

Love in Vain first appeared on the Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed. Live versions of the song also appear on two albums: the 1970 Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, and the 1995 Stripped.

The Stones quite reasonably assumed that after all this time, Robert Johnson’s songs would be in the public domain.  However, they were sued by the estate of Johnson who claimed rights to the  music.  In 2000, the court ruled that the Estate of Robert Johnson had title to the rights for his songs.

As a result, the Rolling Stones were required to pay royalties to Johnson’s estate for the Stones’ recordings of his songs Love in Vain and Stop Breakin’ Down Blues.

The Stones clearly enjoy this Robert Johnson song, and why shouldn’t they, since they crafted such a dynamite cover of this classic blues tune?

Eric Clapton and Love in Vain:

Eric Clapton is one of the greatest blues-rock guitarists of all time. He has appeared in several earlier blog posts. We first covered his song Layla with Derek and the Dominos, in a post dealing with Pattie Boyd. Next we reviewed his cover of Willie and the Hand Jive. Finally, we discussed his cover of Sweet Home Chicago, another Robert Johnson song.

Eric Clapton was a musical child prodigy. While still in his teens, he developed a cult following for his blues guitar work with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. But he was restless, and moved rapidly from one band to another.

Below is a photo of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. From L: John Mayall; Eric Clapton; John McVie; Hughie Flint.

Clapton’s next move was the blues supergroup Cream, that included bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. Although Cream made Clapton a world superstar, his experience with the band was bittersweet.

Personal tensions within the group were exceptionally high. Clapton found himself caught in the middle between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who loathed one another. In addition, Clapton was convinced that the group often ‘skated’ on their great talent, frequently turning in sub-par performances.

Cream broke up after about three years, and Clapton moved on to Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. However, that group lasted for only one year and a single album. Clapton then began sitting in with the group Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and Clapton next formed Derek and the Dominos.

Derek and the Dominos was sparked by a collaboration of Eric with Duane Allman. The fireworks between those two blues guitar virtuosos were electrifying. However, Duane’s tragic death in 1971 was a major blow, and Derek and the Dominos produced just one album before they broke up.

Since that time, Eric Clapton has gone out on his own for a long and productive solo career. Clapton is incredibly versatile, and is an accomplished guitarist in rock, country and pop music. However, his first love has always been the blues, and he returns to that genre as often as he can.

Earlier in his career, and especially during his time with Cream and Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton experienced serious issues with drug addiction. This threatened not only his career but his life.

But the story has a happy ending. Beginning in 1982, Eric Clapton checked himself into Minnesota’s Hazelden Clinic. After a couple of visits there, he conquered his addictions and appears to have been clean and sober ever since.

Clapton has since founded a drug treatment facility called the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, and organized a Crossroads Guitar Festival event in order to provide funds for the Centre. The event has been held five times, and features blues legends. It has been a phenomenal success both musically and as a fund-raiser.

With respect to his first love the blues, Eric Clapton has the greatest regard for Robert Johnson, whom he has called “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”

Note that one of Clapton’s most famous songs, Layla, includes a line that references Johnson’s Love in Vain Blues, “please don’t say we’ll never find a way, and tell me all my love’s in vain.”

We will present two versions of Love In Vain by Eric Clapton. The first is simply Eric with an acoustic guitar. He demonstrates Robert Johnson’s guitar technique on Love In Vain, and follows Johnson’s style extremely closely.

This is pretty much an “instructional video” showing the details of Johnson’s acoustic guitar work on Love In Vain Blues. It is a moving homage from guitar superhero Clapton to blues legend Robert Johnson.

Next, here is Eric Clapton in live performance, showcasing two of Robert Johnson’s songs.

These two tunes form the middle of an extended set of Robert Johnson songs from this concert. Clapton starts out with Stones In My Passway and ends with Little Queen of Spades, neither of which are shown here.

Clapton first plays Love In Vain. At the end of that tune, he immediately produces an electrifying guitar lick, then segues directly into Crossroad Blues. This is the hard-rock version of this tune that Eric first made famous with the power trio Cream.

This performance took place in Pittsburgh on April 6, 2013; it was the final concert on Clapton’s 2013 American tour. It’s wonderful to see Eric in performance with his Fender Stratocaster and his band.

It’s also great to see Eric jamming away at his first great love, power versions of classic blues tunes. I am in awe of Clapton’s combination of virtuosity and traditional blues chords, and in particular his uncanny ability to hit precisely the right notes in every blues riff.

The songs are backed up by impressive accompanying guitar work from long-time Clapton band member Doyle Bramhall II. In Love In Vain, Bramhall produces some lovely slide guitar licks, and he chimes in on electric guitar in Crossroads.

I’m sorry to say that in the past year, Eric Clapton’s health has deteriorated significantly. For some time he has been dealing with arthritis, but this past June he revealed that he has peripheral neuropathy. This is a condition that affects nerves in the extremities. It can cause tingling, shooting pains, numbness and loss of coordination, all conditions that can have devastating effects on musicians.

For example, Tristram Saunders wrote that
Keith Emerson, the keyboardist of Emerson, Lake and Palmer,
had been struggling with dystonia, a similar condition
[to peripheral neuropathy], caused by a motorcycle accident in 1994 which damaged the nerves in his right hand.
Emerson committed suicide in March of this year.

Clapton’s legs have been affected by peripheral neuropathy, but not his hands. He has still been doing some work in the studio, but this condition could well end his touring.

For over 50 years, Eric Clapton has been a giant in the music industry, and we wish him all health and happiness at this point and going forward.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Love In Vain
Wikipedia, Robert Johnson
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, Eric Clapton
The Disease That Could End Eric Clapton’s Career: Why Musicians Fear Peripheral Neuropathy, Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph, June 13, 2016.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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