When The Rolling Stones turned Robert Johnson blues into a country song

The Rolling Stones always had a special fondness for country music. From the lighthearted clickety-clack of ‘Country Honk’ to the heartbreaking emotions of ‘Wild Horses’, the Stones often knew how to get the best out of country music. One of the band’s first true embraces of the genre actually came as they were attempting to adapt a traditional blues song: Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’.

“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’,” Keith Richard recalled in 1990. “‘Love in Vain’ was such a beautiful song.”

“Mick and I both loved it, and at the time I was working and playing around with Gram Parsons, and I started searching around for a different way to present it, because if we were going to record it there was no point in trying to copy the Robert Johnson style or ways and styles,” Richards added. “We took it a little bit more country, a little bit more formalized, and Mick felt comfortable with that.”

“We changed the arrangement quite a lot from Robert Johnson’s,” Jagger remembered in 1995. “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.”

Originally recorded by Johnson in 1937 and released as a 78 rpm record in 1939, ‘Love in Vain’ wasn’t included in the 1961 compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers that helped kickstart the British blues boom of the 1960s. Various bootlegs included the track before it was officially released on King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. II, meaning that most audiences heard The Rolling Stones’ version of ‘Love in Vain’ before Johnson’s version became widely available.

“Sometimes I wonder… myself (about how we developed that arrangement). I don’t know! (laughs) We only knew the Robert Johnson version,” Richards also recalled. “At the time we were kicking it around, I was into country music – old white country music, ’20s and ’30s stuff, and white gospel. Somewhere I crossed over into this more classical mode. Sometimes things just happen.”

“We were sitting in the studio, saying, ‘Let’s do ‘Love in Vain’ by Robert Johnson.’ Then I’m trying to figure out some nuances and chords, and I start to play it in a totally different fashion,” Richards said. “Everybody joins in and goes, Yeah, and suddenly you’ve got your own stamp on it. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to top Robert Johnson’s guitar playing.”

Check out ‘Love in Vain’ down below.

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