Determining who wrote a traditional blues song can be akin to casting a fishing line into very muddy waters. That’s because in the early decades of the last century, blues was an oral tradition, with songs and lyrics and guitar licks passed from one musician to the next. As Dave Van Ronk once said, “Theft is the first law of art, and like any group of intelligent musicians, we all lived with our hands in each other’s pockets.” Added folklorist and song collector Paul Clayton: “If you can’t write, rewrite. If you can’t rewrite, copyright.”
Recordings didn’t necessarily clear up the issue of authorship. A 78 rpm disc might give writer’s credit to a blues singer, but unless the song was copyrighted, he was unlikely to ever see publishing royalties. Talent recruited for so-called “race records” rarely thought in such terms, and typically took a one-time cash payment. Skip James was paid $40 for the 26 sides he recorded for Paramount in 1931, and his songs weren’t copyrighted until his rediscovery in the early-‘60s.
Robert Petway recorded “Catfish Blues” in 1941; he was cited as the writer but blues hounds say the song had circulated around the Delta and was in the repertoire of a singer of his acquaintance, Tommy McClennan. Petway certainly lifted the second verse from a 1928 hit called “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues” by a medicine-show entertainer named Jim Jackson (“I wished I was a catfish, swimming down in the sea; I’d have some good woman, fishing after me.”).
“Catfish Blues” barely caused a ripple commercially, but it was no doubt familiar to one of Petway’s Delta neighbors, Muddy Waters, who that same year was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Muddy brought the song with him to Chicago, and cut it for Chess in 1950 with his ringing electric guitar representing a clear bridge from the country blues to the sounds of the city. Muddy moved the “catfish” lyric to the top, and put his name on a song whose title he changed to “Rolling Stone.” Here’s Waters playing the tune about a decade later, and not long before a British rhythm & blues quintet who idolized Muddy decided to call themselves the Rolling Stones:
Many others have covered “Catfish Blues,” with B.B. King giving Petway writing credit, John Lee Hooker taking it for himself, and Jimi Hendrix citing the song as a traditional. Hendrix undoubtedly learned the song via Muddy Waters. “When I was a little kid,” Hendrix told Sharon Lawrence, “I heard a record playing at a neighbor’s house turned way up. That song called to me, and I left my yard, went down the street, and when the song was over, I knocked on the door and said, ‘Who was that playing?’ ‘Muddy Waters,’ the guy said. I didn’t quite understand. He repeated it and spelled it out– ‘M-u-d-d-y.’”
“Catfish Blues” was not only a staple of Hendrix’s repertoire, but also the clear inspiration for a tune in which he launched the blues into outer space, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”