Blues Time Machine
12:00 pm
Fri July 19, 2013

Obscure Origins of a Blues Classic: 'Catfish Blues'

It’s one of the most widely played songs in the blues, but not much is known about Robert Petway, the man who recorded the definitive early version of “Catfish Blues”. The scant information that exists tells a familiar story of a Delta musician who headed to Chicago to make records. But after recording a mere 16 songs in 1941 and 1942, Petway seems to have disappeared from view.

Like many blues songs, Petway’s 1941 “Catfish Blues” was already a traditional blues tune in the Delta. Fellow bluesmen Tommy McClennan and Skip James were known for playing it, but the influence of his recording was huge, when you consider how it affected the development of blues.

Like Petway, Muddy Waters also left Mississippi for Chicago, and began his recording career in the mid-40’s. Waters had a canny sense of how to adapt the Delta sound to the urban environment, and he was among the first wave of electrified Delta blues guitarists, and he would go on to be one of the biggest stars in blues history. His 1950 recording “Rollin’ Stone” borrows the style and lyrics from “Catfish Blues”, and his electric guitar foretells the future of blues. This is a wonderful film clip of Muddy Waters performing “Rollin’ Stone” at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival:

If Muddy Waters was the father of Chicago blues, B.B. King is its world ambassador. One of the most influential guitarists in history, B.B. King’s note-bending guitar style is one of the signatures of  modern blues, matched only by his passionate voice. With 74 songs reaching the Billboard R & B charts and his 1970 pop hit “The Thrill is Gone”, he is truly a giant of American music. He has famously collaborated with many of the worlds leading musicians, notably with Eric Clapton and U-2. He recorded “Catfish Blues” in 1961. In this clip B.B. King performs one of his classics “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”:

As Muddy Waters and B.B. King defined their respective eras, Jimi Hendrix was another who became the architect of a new sound with previously unimagined sonic possibilities. His many innovations on the electric guitar were derived from his mastery of blues and r & b, and he brought blues fully into the consciousness of rock players. He recorded “Catfish Blues” in 1967.

Here are the complete versions of “Catfish Blues” and “Rollin’ Stone” tracked through time: