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Cuttin' Heads: Muddy Waters vs Heritage Blues Orchestra

A down-by-the-river country standard about casting a rod competes with Chicago electric blues and swing-dance. Which version is catch of the day?

One day in March 1941, a singer from the deep south sat down in a Chicago recording studio and began a song. He remembered lying down last night, trying to take his rest, till the notion struck him to take a stroll out west. Then he veered away into another thought. ‘If I was a catfish, mama, swimmin’ deep down in the blue sea, I believe the gals now, sweet mama, ’d be settin’ out hooks for me.’ And, as if charmed with the image, he goes on repeating it, ‘settin’ out hooks for me’, until his guitar takes over, driving its own repeated riff into the listener’s head like hammer blows on a nail. More than 60 years later, Robert Petway’s Catfish Blues has become a blues standard, played by everyone from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker to Gary Clark Jr and the Heritage Blues Orchestra.

There are some odd things about this. Catfish live in fresh water: they have no business in the sea. And the lines about the catfish are the only ones that justify the song’s title. In the remaining verses Petway goes to church and writes his baby a letter. The catfish, you might say, is a floater – one of those stanzas that hold a sharp image, and stick in the memory, and so are constantly being hooked out of the pool of blues verse and placed in a new context. The idea behind it is a kind of boast. The catfish is a devious creature, lurking way down in the water, twitching his long whiskers, sharp-finned and well able to protect himself – but good eating if you can catch him. The singer is saying: ‘I’m trouble, ladies, but I’m worth it.’

Little is known about Robert Petway. In the only known photograph of him, in a Bluebird Records catalogue, he’s wearing overalls like a farmer. He sounds very like, and on one occasion shared a studio with, Tommy McClennan, who was from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and it’s been surmised that they were neighbours, though a researcher has recently suggested Petway may have been from northern Alabama.

No one supposes that Petway was the first blues musician to think of putting a catfish into a song. Way back in 1928, the old medicine-show entertainer Jim Jackson, composing a follow-up to his huge hit Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues, put in a verse wishing he was ‘a catfish swimming down in the sea – I’d have some good woman fishing after me.’ A blues singer and guitarist from Birmingham, Alabama, William Harris, promptly covered him. The phrase was out there. It just remained for Petway to net the crafty fellow and put him in a song’s title.

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