Out of the Mississippi River Delta have come some of the world’s greatest blues legends, and among them is Yazoo City’s own Robert Petway. Petway appears first on the map of history in the 1930’s playing the parties and roadhouses and old country dances throughout Delta country with his close friend Tommy McClennan. When McClennan moved to Chicago to begin recording in the late thirties, Petway followed soon afterward and recorded sixteen songs of his own for Bluebird Records in 1941 and ’42, including his famous “Catfish Blues,” which had a major influence on such greats as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Jimi Hendrix.
Then, as quickly as he had come on stage, Petway exited, never to be seen again. Where did he come from, and where did he go? Nobody knows for sure, but thanks to blues writer and researcher Jason Rewald, some of the pieces to the Petway puzzle may have surfaced at long last.
Most people believed for a long time that Petway was born and raised at the J. F. Sligh Farm near Yazoo City, since that is where his buddy McClennan was from. Petway certainly stuck to McClennan for a number of years as if he were a brother, and Yazoo City claims Petway as one of her treasured sons.
As he began his research, however, Rewald hit a snag early on. No “Robert Petway” shows up on any census records for Mississippi, and in fact there is only one “Petway” listed for all of Mississippi—a man from Alabama who was gone again by 1930. No parents, no siblings, no grandparents, no kinfolk throughout the entire area. Musicians tend to roam, but not their entire family. If he were originally from Yazoo City, where were his family members?
There is a place in the South, Rewald discovered, however, that is covered up with Petways: Gee’s Bend, Alabama, today known as Boykin, generally accessed by ferry. Rewald is convinced this tiny community tucked away in one of the U-turns of the Alabama River is the most likely place for the famous bluesman’s origin and that Yazoo City became his adopted home before heading north to Chicago.
In 1845 Mark Pettway bought Gee’s Bend from his cousins, Sterling and Charles Gee, along with the forty-seven slaves that came with it—to which the Pettway family added their own one hundred slaves. When the United States emancipated the Pettway slaves twenty years later, many of them stayed on as sharecroppers and tenants, most of whom assumed the Pettway name in the process. As a result, Gee’s Bend and the surrounding Wilcox County are home to a lot of Pettways to this day, descendants of these former slaves, sharecroppers, and tenants.
Sure enough, the research turned up a twelve-year-old Robert Pettway in the 1920 census records, which matches exactly the age of the famous blues musician for the time. If Rewald is right, about twelve years later, when he was in his mid-twenties and old enough to strike out on his own, future blues master Robert Petway left half-starved Gee’s Bend, one of the poorest communities in America and one of the most deeply affected by the Depression, and made for the rich, fertile farmland of the Delta. Voila. Robert Petway shows up at the J. F. Sligh Farm near Yazoo City, meets up with a musical mentor in McClennan, farms by day, and learns, sings, and plays the blues by night. That puzzle piece certainly seems to fit.
But what became of Petway after the recording sessions that put him on the airwaves in the early forties? Rewald’s theory is that he settled in Chicago, where jobs were plentiful and life was for the most part easier than in the rural South. The mid-twentieth century was definitely an age for leaving the farm to find work in the city. Death records list a Robert Petway who died in Chicago in 1978. Is it the right one? Likely. Regardless his origin or end, however, one thing is for sure: Robert Petway’s brief appearance on the music scene influenced the blues profoundly, and blues fans the world over are grateful for it.