Leaving in "Love in Vain"

by: Courtney Danforth


In "Love in Vain" Johnson reacts uncommonly to the end of his affair with Willie Mae. The difference in Johnson's response to Willie Mae's leaving, in contrast to women such as the one in "Rambling on my Mind," and the one in "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" indicates a difference, some better quality, in his total relationship with her. He makes no action to move on, he is nonviolent, he expresses hopelessness and lack of control, and he lays no blame.

At the end of this song, there is no vow to move on, to ramble, to get on with it, which is uncharacteristic for Johnson's pursued nature. When things have gone sour in his other relationships, Johnson has been "runnin' down to the station" ("Rambling On My Mind"), "feelin' 'round for my shoes" ("Walking Blues"), "slowly walked away" ("If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day"), and "I'm 'on' bid you fare...farewell" ("From Four 'till Late"), but in "Love in Vain" there is no mention whatsoever of him going away. Yes, it may not be really necessary, seeing as how she is leaving town, but even when he starts to leave in other songs, sometimes his woman has left first, such as in "Walking Blues." His instinct to leave is tied not to his desire to get away from a woman, but rather from a pressing inner pursuit, arising in part in response to disappointment at the end of the relationship. The last verse of this song leaves Johnson, not leaving, but dwelling on the name of his lost love-a backward glance and not forward progression.

In other songs Johnson has had a threatening reaction to his woman's betrayal such as, "I got mean things all on my mind" in "Rambling on my Mind', "Take my 32-30, now, and out her half in two" in "32-30 Blues", and "I said in my mind, 'Yo trouble gon' come some day'" in "If I had Possession Over Judgment Day" (leaving him is one kind of betrayal), but there is no single violent element in "Love in Vain." There is an element in the second verse which could potentially be violent, but which, either was never meant to be violent, or is restrained: Johnson looks Willie Mae in the eye, which can be a gesture of confrontation, and sometimes an indication of true passion ("looking deep into her eyes..."). In this case, it is some of each scenario. Johnson seeks to confirm something he already knows very well, she is really leaving, and is intimate enough with her to seek this information within her eyes, windows to the soul. Their intimacy greatly reduces the impact of the confrontation.

Johnson cries when Willie Mae goes away. This also happens in "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" and "Rambling On My Mind," but in that last instance he is crying and leaving. On a more comparable note, he cries and wrings his hands in "When You Got A Good Friend." The oft used, ornamental phrase is significantly less moving than the innocence of uncomplicated crying in "Love In Vain." His reaction in this piece is childlike in its purity and its strength beyond his control. He cannot tell himself what to do; he cries and cannot help it.

Johnson assigns at least part of the blame for breaking up on the woman in many, if not most, of his songs. In "Kindhearted Woman Blues" he is "worried 'bout how you treat me;" In "Rambling On My Mind" he says she "treats me so unkind;" in "Phonograph Blues" Beatrice has "taken my lovin' and given it to your other man;" and in "From Four 'till Late" "she get with a no-good bunch and clown." "Love in Vain" presents no such situation. Johnson does not even blame himself. Willie Mae's leaving seems to be more something that just happens, which they both accept, rather than a failure on anyone's part, thus the reaction Johnson has can be pure grief at the turn of events; he needn't strike out or register his discontent with the source of the trouble.

If the cause of this situation is not the human components, then it should be something like fate or God, but that is not entirely accurate either. Johnson has no qualms about letting people know when he doesn't like what God, or whomever (or whatever) is doing to him. There is none of that here. He does not blame himself, Willie Mae, or other powers that be. The entire circumstance is "in vain," beyond him, branded by futility or ineffectualness of wish.

From Johnson's reaction to the departure of Willie Mae, expressed in negatives: he makes no move to move on, he is nonviolent, hopelessness, lack of control, laying no blame, may seem to indicate his detachment from the situation. Rather, it registers a pain beyond human cause and strength. His atypical reaction draws attention to the catalyst, also atypical. Johnson's relationship with Willie Mae is something apart from the others, and apart from himself.