“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.”

Published by Mister Bulger

Adam Bulger is the editor in chief of BTRtoday.com and a frequent contributor to the parenting website Fatherly.com. He's also recently written for the wedding site ThePlunge.com and the college student aide Coursehero.com. Less recently, he's written for The Believer, Forbes, The Atlantic's website, Suicidegirls, Inked Magazine and probably about a dozen other places that are too obscure or defunct to bother listing.

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