Robert Petway

Robert Petway, possibly b. October 18, 1907 in Gee's Bend, AL, d. May 1978 in Chicago, IL, blues singer and guitarist. He recorded only 16 songs, but it has been said that he was an influence on many notable blues and rock musicians, including John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Jimi Hendrix. There is only one known picture of Petway, a publicity photo from 1941. Little is known about Petway. It has been speculated that he was born at or near the J.F. Sligh Farm, near Yazoo City, Mississippi, the birthplace of his close friend and fellow bluesman Tommy McClennan. However, recent research suggests that Petway may have been born at Gee's Bend, Alabama. His name at birth may have been spelled Pettway or Pettiway. According to his Social Security registration, he was born in 1907, though some other sources suggest 1902. The date and cause of his death are unknown. Like many bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta, Petway traveled as a musician, playing at parties, roadhouses, and other venues. Petway and McClennan often travelled and performed together. After McClennan had been in Chicago for a few years, Petway travelled north to join him and cut records, as did Georgia's Frank Edwards, who had met them in Mississippi.

Petway recorded the song "Catfish Blues" in 1941. Among many other musicians who played variations of the song, Muddy Waters used the arrangement and lyrics of "Catfish Blues" for his song "Rollin' Stone" (the song from which the Rolling Stones took their name). The composition credit given to Petway is based entirely on the recording date of his version of the song, but it cannot establish that his version was the original and the source of later versions. There is speculation that Tommy McClennan wrote the song, as he himself recorded it as "Deep Blues Sea". David "Honeyboy" Edwards (a follower of Petway's), asked if Petway wrote the song, replied, "He just made that song up and used to play it at them old country dances. He just made it up and kept it in his head." In his autobiography, Edwards also remembered the Delta blues guitarist Tom Toy, from Leland, Mississippi, who apparently was well known locally for his version of "Catfish Blues". Toy never recorded.

The second verse of Petway's "Catfish Blues" is as follows:
What if I were a catfish, mama
I said swimmin’ deep down in, deep blue sea
Have these gals now, sweet mama, settin’ out,
Settin’ out hooks for me, settin’ out hook for me
Settin’ out hook for me, settin’ out hook for me
Settin’ out hook for me, settin’ out hook for me

The first verse of Muddy Waters's "Rollin' Stone" has similar lyrics:
Well, I wish I was a catfish,
swimmin in a oh, deep, blue sea
I would have all you good lookin women,
fishin, fishin after me
Sure 'nough, a-after me
Sure 'nough, a-after me
Oh 'nough, oh 'nough, sure 'nough 

There is no record, official or unofficial, of Petway's death. The last record of his public life is a quote from Honeyboy Edwards: "nobody I know heard what become of him." The blues researcher Jason Rewald has suggested, on the basis of Social Security records, that Petway may have been born in Gee's Bend, Alabama, on October 18, 1907, and died in Chicago on May 30, 1978. In his autobiography, Edwards stated that he had heard that Petway may have moved to Chicago, where Edwards himself lived, but that he never met him there.

Petway only recorded two sessions, both for Bluebird Records in Chicago.

First session, recorded on March 28, 1941:
Bluebird B8726, "Rockin' Chair Blues" / "Let Me Be Your Boss"
Bluebird B8756, "Sleepy Woman Blues" / "Don't Go Down Baby"
Bluebird B8786, "My Little Girl" / "Left My Baby Crying"
Bluebird B8838, "Catfish Blues" / "Ride 'Em on Down"

Second session, recorded on February 20, 1942:
Bluebird B8987, "Boogie Woogie Woman" / "Hollow Log Blues"
Bluebird B9008, "Bertha Lee Blues" / "In the Evening"
Bluebird B9036, "My Baby Left Me" / "Cotton Pickin' Blues"
Bluebird unissued, "Hard Working Woman" / "Ar'nt Nobody's Fool"

by Stacia Proefrock:
A well-respected country blues artist despite his limited output, Robert Petway was a blues guitarist who recorded eight sides for Bluebird Records in 1941 and followed those up with eight more in 1942 (of which six were issued). Little biographical information is available on Petway, although it is known that he lived and played in Mississippi. The only surviving image of him shows him in overalls, holding a metal-bodied National resonator guitar. His song "Catfish Blues" gained some notoriety when it was recorded by Muddy Waters, who renamed it "Rollin' Stone," providing the inspiration years later for the name of the rock band, the Rolling Stones.