Alan Greenberg’s Love in Vain is a brilliant, mesmerizing screenplay about the life and times of Robert Johnson, one of the most important blues men in the history of music. It was originally written in 1997, and has only recently been made available in this reprint edition.
The screenplay has not, according to the foreword by Martin Scorsese, ever been filmed. This is perhaps understandable, as much of it would not be easy to understand without the copious notes, which are nearly as long as the screenplay itself and which are utterly fascinating in their explanation of Robert Johnson’s world and the superstitions and other cultural influences, circumstances, and locations, that propelled the events, both real and mythological, of his life.
The screenplay itself, like the world of African Americans in the 1920’s and 1930’s, is dark and gritty, filled with poverty, hard work, casual violence, frenzied eroticism, religion, and music. Black people frequented “jook joints” looking for anything to take them away from the day to day sameness and struggle of their lives. Men and women drank anything that would get them drunk, including sterno and shoe polish. People got “Jake leg,” a form of paralysis, from drinking things that were not meant for that purpose. People were knifed, poisoned, and shot and the music and dancing just went on.
This was the world of a blues singer in those days, and it was the world that Johnson came to dominate with his songs that still resonate with listeners today. “Love in Vain” was recorded by the Rolling Stones. Eric Clapton and many other famous musicians have recorded “Crossroads.” Johnson’s songs have outlived his time, but his times molded his songs.
The screenplay, with the notes, is one of the best evocations and explanations not only of Johnson but the blues scene of the time ever written. It is not a world that is easy for most blues lovers of today to imagine, but it is a world that deserves to be remembered and learning about it will enrich the experience of hearing the great blues musicians of the early days, not only Robert Johnson but Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Tampa Red, Georgia Tom, and so many more, immensely.