Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rock Mandolin: Love In Vain

Since today starts out the second week of the month, we start a new week long thematic set called the Second Week Special. Each month we’ll feature a series of recordings that have something in common. It may be instrumentation, album design, record labels, style of music, songwriters, or anything else that can be stretched into seven days. Today begins a week-long special that features rock mandolin – one of my favorite instruments.

During September 1973, I spied an inexpensive A-style Mayfair mandolin in a store in Grayson, KY. Besides being the town's only official record store, DJ Record Shop also sold a limited number of instruments, strings, and picks. The mandolin cost me $42.00 and I had it for nearly three years until I sold it to a friend for $42.00.

Author in 1974 with his first mandolin

My second was an Ibanez 552 – a copy of Jethro Burns' Gibson A5 – I still have it, and it remains one of my key instruments. Even though it only cost $110 in 1976, it is a beautiful instrument with good tone. I purchased this instrument at the Pied Piper in Huntington, West Virginia when they were located in a very small storefront on Fourth Avenue.

Author in 2007 with current mandolin

What got me interested in the mandolin was a recording by The Rolling Stones. Appearing on their “Let it Bleed” LP, “Love in Vain” was a Robert Johnson composition that was interpreted in a country-rock vein through the influence of Gram Parsons. Two instruments created that feel – slide guitar played by Mick Taylor and mandolin added by sideman Ry Cooder.

I first heard this recording in 1972 when Jim Roach on Pittsburgh’s WDVE played it during a three-hour long feature of The Rolling Stones’ best recordings. At the time, I didn’t have this album and was only familiar with three cuts: “Gimme Shelter,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “Monkey Man.” When I heard Ry’s playing on “Love in Vain,” I knew I wanted a mandolin and within a year, I had one.

On the original US pressings of “Let it Bleed,” “Love in Vain” was credited to one of Johnson’s pseudonyms: “Woody Payne.” Later copies corrected this and credited the song as authored by Robert Johnson. When The Stones used a blues song, they made sure they credited to the composer – even if it was their own arrangement. This is unlike Led Zeppelin who often passed off old blues numbers as their own – Superhype Music indeed.

Ry Cooder’s mandolin begins after the first verse. You can see why I was attracted to this instrument. This was the song that started it all. “The blue light was my baby and the red light was my mind.” Enjoy.


  1. I recently read Keith's book 'Life', so of course I've started listening to more old Stones songs. Keith mentions his friendship with Gram and it got me thinking what those two would have created together. Great song.

  2. That's an interesting thought Wayne. A number of songs were influenced by Gram including "Country Honk" and "Wild Horses." I can't help but think that the later "Faraway Eyes" also had some latent Parsons influence.

  3. Faraway Eyes certainly does have that Parsons flavor doesn't it. I never really thought about that!