“Catfish Blues,” By Robert Petway: My Favorite Blues Song

I just spent 10 minutes trying to track down this song. It was on a blues compilation I lost years ago. I was looking for a song about death or the moon, a delta blues song on an acoustic guitar. I’m writing this post so that I don’t forget it again.

It’s spare and haunting. The guitar sounds like it only has four string on it. The rhythm is hypnotic, lurching and powerful. It’s just a voice and a guitar but it builds in intensity despite the minimal instrumentation.

The second verse is the source of Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues.” It’s weird that Muddy took that part; it’s the dumbest part of the song. The third verse, where the guy drops to his knees for prayer and doesn’t have a word to say, that’s part to steal. That and the more ambiguous but just as sinister “Take a stroll out West” of the first verse takes the wind right out of your throat.

Robert Petway recorded the song in 1941, later than I expected from its skeletal nature. The far more sophisticated compositions of Robert Johnson had been on wax for five years by then. Petway is a mysterious figure, even for early 20th century bluesman. He only recorded about a dozen songs, with “Catfish Blues” being the most famous. His songs show off more intricate guitar playing, but none, sadly, have the raw, cold force of “Catfish Blues.”

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