Lost in Love

by: Scott Lewis


"Love in Vain" is a Robert Johnson song recorded in two versions. The lyrics to both versions are virtually the same, with small but meaningful changes in the word order. For the most part, the meaning of each song is also the same. The only difference in meaning comes in the first stanza, where the two central figures approach the train station. By slightly altering the words of one sentence, Robert Johnson creates a change in the symbolism of the suitcase and its significance to the story as a whole, while the rest of the song remains unchanged in both words and meaning.

The initial stanzas of both songs are identical except for the line containing the suitcase. The man in the song is following a woman to a train station, and he is carrying a suitcase for her. In Take 1, he follows her carrying "a suitcase," whereas in Take 4 he is carrying his own suitcase ("my suitcase") for her. The difference between the two songs is that Take 4 reinforces the sense of interest (not love) that he has in her-the sense of interest that the reader becomes aware of. The suitcase acts as a reinforcement because something of his (a symbol of part of him, perhaps) is going with her, and he does not protest. In fact, he participates in its departure. Take 1 only implies that she is taking "a suitcase," which has no value other than just being a suitcase, and it has no relations or links to him.

With the exception of the first stanza, the remainder of both songs suggests the same meaning. Because his love is in vain, he never suspects that she will leave him; hence the statement "it's hard to tell/when all your love's in vain." When the train approaches all he can do is look "her in the eye" and cry. he is fully aware that she does not love him, but he does not understand exactly why, it seems, since he follows her to the station as if he is pleading with her. He does realize, however, that he is able to love the world (especially her), but tragically the world is not able to love him ("All my love's on vain"). The conclusion is, therefore, that her departure suggests and illustrates her lack of love for him. And, when the train leaves he is devastated and encompassed by loneliness.

Two lights on the back of the departing train serve to reveal his emotions. One light is blue and the other is red. The blue light is symbolic of his depression, which arises from their separation. The red light is symbolic of his anger (his mind). The last line of the third verse in both songs reads: "And the red light was my mind" immediately followed by "All my love's in vain," which strongly indicates that he is angry with loving people and failing to receive love in return. The blue and red lights (on the train) may also indicate that his emotions and his mind have been taken along with her as she leaves. In essence, he has lost his emotions and his mind.

Therefore, "Love in Vain," is a song about a man who struggles with relationships. Though there are two versions of the song, perhaps Robert Johnson left them nearly identical to place emphasis on a single message which he wants convey. And, reading both songs does reiterate the same message, with only a stronger sense of his feelings for her in Take 4. The world is a cruel place for the man in the song, a place where he seems isolated and emotionally abandoned by an unbalanced sense of decency for one another. In the end, he is left standing alone watching the rear of the parting train.