Robert Petway - Catfish Blues
February 28, 2008 9:03 PM   Subscribe

And here we have a couple of YouTube productions, screensaverish animations of photos and lyrics to the original recordings: Robert Petway - Catfish Blues and Tommy McClennan - It's Hard To Be Lonesome. This is mostly about Petway and Catfish Blues but you can't mention Petway without mentioning McClennan, as they ran together in their time and as both did versions of Catfish, a song canonical in Delta Blues, recorded and performed by nearly everyone--Muddy Waters - Rolling Stone, for example. Petway just happens to be the first person to record Catfish, and quite possibly the person who wrote it and certainly. to my mind, at least, the person who nailed it... in the uptempo version at the very least.
It is remarkable, given the later ubiquity of 'Catfish Blues', how little solid information there is about Robert. He was born about 1908, probably on the J.F. Sligh Farm near Yazoo City, like his running buddy, Tommy McClennan. His publicity photograph shows a small man with a toothbrush moustache, a lantern jaw, and big, guitar player's hands. Most unusually, he apparently saw no reason to don the sharp suit and hand painted tie so often favoured by musicians (Tommy McClennan included) when facing the camera; photographed in his working man's blue duckins, Petway's only concession to style was a rakishly angled trilby. McClennan and Petway would play at house parties, and in the juke joint at Three Forks crossroads, nowadays famous as the place where Robert Johnson was poisoned.
...thus reads the text on the Document Records page for Mississippi Blues Vol. 3 Complete Recordings of Robert Petway, Mississippi Matilda, Sonny Boy Nelson comes these Coralized mp3s of Petway's Catfish Blues as well as his and McClennan's Boogie Woogie Woman. If these don't work, the links for them on the page will.

What they give you are a cpuple of slices of 1940s Delta Blues in their original context as downhome juke joint dance music performed by two diminutive men--McClennan evidently stood 4'10" and weighed in at 133, according to David Honeyboy Edwards--with big voices and punchy percussive National guitars.

As guitar players, they are limited in one sense, expansive in another. As singers, well, they are shouters and they tear it up.Regarding Catfish is Robert Petway - Acoustic Guitar Forum. And, also, at Weenie Campbell's Keys To the Highway forum, Robert Petway--Keys/Positions for his Songs is a comment in the thread concerning Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs.

As for Tommy McClennan, go to the Blues & Gospel from the 1920s & 1930s section after you join up--for free--at the The Roots Music Listening Room, which was brought to our attention by one crunchland, and you will find Baby, Don't You Want To Go, Cross Cut Saw Blues, Down To Skin And Bones, Drop Down Mama, Elsie Blues, and I'm A Guitar King--ha!--among a dozen or so others of McClennan's 40 odd song output.

And, for the record, compare and contrast their portraits on their respective Stefan Wirz' Robert Petway and Tommy McClennan pages.

And here iare two more pages: Tommy McClennan and Tommy McClennan, Whiskey Head Woman: The Complete Recordings 1939-1940
posted by y2karl (8 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, just went through a number of this YouTuber vidlad's clips featuring those odd rubber-face animations. Very curious.

Thanks for the post. I love McClennan!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:44 PM on February 28, 2008

That first YT of Tommy McClennan is creepy. I've banked the rest of this because the music is so good--thanks for the Roots Music Listening Room link, especially. (I'd always wanted to hear King Oliver, but kept forgetting to netscour.) But seeing that McClennan YT kinda did something to me, and I'm going to blame that on my not sleeping well.
posted by not_on_display at 9:48 PM on February 28, 2008

No, flapjax, why did you have to link them here? Oh why! Now I blame you for no sleep, while you're just kickin' off for the afternoon, I bet... grumble... [click, click] AGH my eyes!
posted by not_on_display at 9:51 PM on February 28, 2008

posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:52 PM on February 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Goooood morning... AGHH, MY EYES!


posted by not_on_display at 4:55 AM on February 29, 2008

Nice post, thanks! Jimi Hendrix also did a nice cover of Catfish Blues, but more in the Muddy Waters style.
posted by Daddy-O at 5:16 AM on February 29, 2008

Many years ago, people in Japan believed that a giant catfish lay deep underground, and that every time he moved he caused an earthquake.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:33 AM on February 29, 2008

That first YT of Tommy McClennan is creepy.

Well, sorry about that--I didn't really review that one, to tell you the truth, else I would have omitted it. The mp3's are the meat, butter and potatoes here.

Catfish is one of those songs that is so basic and simple and common to so many Delta bluesmen's repertoire that it's a wonder to think of it as ever just beginning as one person's song. But it very well may begin that way.

And another thing about it is that it is not only arguably Petway's best song but it is also the first song he ever recorded. And it is little like any other song he recorded. This is something which he shared with Tommy Johnson, the latter's Cool Drink of Water being his first and best song as well. I have oftened wondered how common that is--that is, how many times a blues singer's discography begins with his or her best shot.

And then again, both songs are basically variations on one chord. In the case of Catfish, that is variations on a simple E chord in the first position. But, in Petway's case, what variations they are--he gets deeper in the groove with every beat and his vocal goes all shamanistic and incantatory the deeper he gets. And the song has a fade out. That was not a common thing in that time. So, it's a wonder.
posted by y2karl at 8:49 AM on February 29, 2008

« Older dubstep   |   Papa Palmérino Sorgente, the Pope of... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments