Robert Johnson is one of the most, if not the most mysterious characters within the realm of rock and roll. The myth surrounding Johnson’s story created the now typical rocker archetype of ‘selling your soul to the devil’ in return for otherwordly musical abilities.
The story of Johnson selling his soul to the devil originated in his home state of Mississippi. Son House was one of the Mississipi Delta blues’ absolute originals and mentored Robert for a time. Sadly, House was due to go away for a while, and the two would lose touch for three to four years. When House returned to the state, he became reacquainted with Johnson, whose skill as a guitar player had improved tenfold to House’s astonishment. It is said that the tutor was puzzled, as there was surely no way that Johnson’s ability could have improved that much in that amount of time.
Robert Johnson mythologised the story further when he wrote his tale in the form of a song, aptly named ‘Crossroads’. In his lifetime, Johnson only ever recorded approximately 30 songs with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Johnson, even compared to his Delta blues peers, had an incredible and unique way of playing the guitar. He could make it sound like there were multiple players working the frets, perhaps also adding to the myth that he had sold his soul. One of Johnson’s black sheep of songs was a ballad of unrequited love, called ‘Love in Vain’.
“Well I followed her, to the station
With a suitcase in my hand
Yeah, I followed her to the station
With a suitcase in my hand.”
This is the first verse of the song; simple, poignant and heartbroken. While Johnson sang the blues expertly, as any hard-working and struggling American did at the time, it wasn’t often that Johnson would slow his role and reveal the balladeer within him.
Years later, by 1969-1972, The Rolling Stones decided to cover their version of it for their brilliant 1972 record, Exile On Main Street. Both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger grew up listening to the blues, in particular, the one and only Robert Johnson. Richards recalls: “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.'”
While it is fairly close to the original version, the Stones added more of a country edge to ‘Love in Vain’. Reminiscing, Mick Jagger once said: “We changed the arrangement quite a lot from Robert Johnson’s. 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 quite often about love, but they’re desolate.”
The Rolling Stones pulled it off very convincingly; the song sounds like it fits almost too perfectly on the rest of the album as if they had written the song.
If you haven’t already, make sure you listen to this beautiful version of ‘Love in Vain’ as performed by The Rolling Stones: