When speaking of major, unsung influences on America’s music, Robert Petway is without doubt a top contender. Aside from being the first to cut the blues standard “Catfish Blues” to wax, thus paving the way for subsequent renditions by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, and more, Petway had a fabulous guitar/vocal style well in his own right — much in thanks to his influences as Mississippi legend Charley Patton and best friend Tommy McLennan.
Both Petway and McLennan, with a similar style of country blues, recorded a chock full of incredible music for the illustrious Bluebird label: a Victor subsidiary run by Lester Melrose who also made the likes of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson (the OG Sonny Boy), Big Joe Williams, Jazz Gillum, and Washboard Sam into full-fledged recording stars.
A perfect match for his metal resonator guitar, Petway’s style is like the teeth of a saw — gouging single-note lines that feel like they’ll cut you with each aggressive pluck, and a pointed, but heavy, bass-note backbeat. Petway recorded at the tail-end of the pre-war blues period, so perhaps this later time is why his style was different, but there might be no one who played the way he did. A Texas style bass approach, with a heaviness like Lead Belly, yet a very much pentatonic based treble soloing style which few people if any played with. Also, the measured groove of Catfish Blues shows how he also had finesse to complement his cutthroat playing.
Like many obscure blues legends, very little is known about Petway’s biographical life. He is thought to have been born sometime in 1903 in either Yazoo City, Mississippi or a few miles away in Itta Bena, Leflore County (according to researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc). Petway’s first recording session took place on March 28, 1941, with “Let Me Be Your Boss/Rockin’ Chair Blues.” That same session, he recorded his signature blues standard “Catfish Blues” along with its b-side, “Ride ‘Em On Down” as well as “Sleepy Woman Blues/Don’t Go Down Baby” and “Left My Baby Crying/My Little Girl.” On February 20, 1942, his last session, Petway recorded eight more sides, two of which are unissued. Petways last known sides are “Boogie Woogie Woman/Hollow Log Blues,” “In The Evening/Bertha Lee Blues,” and “My Baby Left Me/Cotton Pickin’ Blues.” “Hard Working Woman/Ar’nt Nobody’s Fool” are unissued/unheard to this day.
After all of this fabulous blues was cut to wax, Petway went Kerouac on both the music world, and apparently the rest of the world too. Like his right-hand-man Tommy McLennan, nobody knows what happened to him since, further pushing him into enigma status. Despite his elusive nature in blues history, Robert Petway has forever landed himself a spot in its books. Lest his genius be forgotten.