One of the many unsung heroes of Piedmont blues research and field-work in the seventies is Danny McLean, then a young resident of Rocky Mount, NC, birthplace of Thelonious Monk. He was just out of the Army… about the only thing good about his service experience was his discovery of blues music (something fitting, don’t you think?). He was living at home with his mother and stepfather, picking up work where he could. I remember that he spent time employed at Melton’s Barbecue making up batches of Brunswick Stew, but he also worked in construction as well. Danny had gotten copies of BLUES UNLIMITED, as well as OLD TIME MUSIC and THE MANDOLIN NEWS, and had taken up the guitar himself. This would have been about 1970. He was driving South down the main street of Rocky Mount one day in a loaner Studebaker, as his car was in the shop, and he saw something that sparked his interest.
The main street in Rocky Mount is W-I-D-E because the railroad tracks run down the middle of the street (two lines) and on each side are two lanes of traffic, plus room for perpendicular parking. A typicallsouthern phenomenon. What grabbed Danny’s interest was a vertically-challenged Black male walking down the sidewalk (footpath: UK) playing his guitar with a bottleneck on his little finger with an equally vertically-challenged Black female walking behind him. This was Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue/Fortiscue) and his wife, Lena Ellis. Shorty was “playing for no one in particular” and Danny immediately pulled over, getting out to listen and talk to the guy. Danny had made one of those once-in-a-lifetime “finds” and was pole-axed by his playing. Shorty played in his own special tuning for the guitar (see the notes for the Flyright or Trix LPs for full details) with a nasty looking bottleneck on his finger… not always used, but always at the ready and poised for action!
Danny knew about bottleneck playing from his reading, but here was one in the flesh. That chance meeting opened up a whole new existence for them both as his curiosity resulted in a friendship that lasted until Shorty’s death in 1976. Danny is an unsung hero because he didn’t just drive on by and let it be – he stopped and became involved, to a greater degree as time passed, and that was still a brave act in semi-rural North Carolina in the early seventies. Shorty was good in Danny’s estimation, and so he spent time recording cassettes of him in full flow as demos. One was sent to Chris Strachwitz, but he wasn’t interested; I have recollection of Danny telling me that later he sent a tape to one of the Traum brothers (Happy or Artie) in Woodstock, NY, but he disagrees on this point now. One night he went to an Allman Brothers show: he gave Duane Allman a tape of Shorty, and Allman wanted to go that very minute to Rocky Mount and find Shorty! Greg had to remind his brother of their schedule and itinerary, and Duane was killed not long after that on his motorcycle (motorbike: UK). Another “What if” moment!!
Anyhow, Danny eventually got in touch with Bruce Bastin at Flyright Records (before 1972 and his legendary year at Chapel Hill!). The label took the best of the remaining cassette performances and put together a stunning LP by the guy. From Danny’s conversations and interviews with Shorty (used for the liner notes) many wild claims came forth – that he had performed with The Boston Pops, that he had taught The Beatles, that he had recorded a couple of dozen sides for Savoy Records. One out of three (.333) is a great batting average in baseball: he DID record for Savoy, as it turns out, in 1952, but only two sides. They are in the files/discography under the name of Hootin’ Owl, probably given to him by Lubinsky or Mendelsohn because of his vocal imitation of a harmonica. It’s the same man, for sure. While Shorty was a b.s. artist of the first water, he was also a musician of even greater abilities and talent. A totally musical being at all times, Shorty would often create songs out of recent events or conversations, or even vague requests… and his arrangements of “known” tunes were always unique.
My involvements with Shorty began in 1972. Danny and Bruce met in the fall and I coat-tailed along with my recording equipment so that we all got together with Shorty on a number of occasions. I recorded him a couple of times in late October of that year… twenty songs, to be precise. These sessions provided much of the basis for the Trix LP (3306: “Alone in his Field”) and included his own take on “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Oo-Poo-Pah-Doo” (as yet unreleased) [a different version of the latter tune is on the Flyright LP under the title “Hoogle-de-doo”]. One of the results of all this activity by the three of us was that Shorty got some gigs performing at a club in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area called The Endangered Species, a pass-the-hat venue with an audience running the gamut from daring faculty members to delirious hippies. Shorty always did well via the kitty, though, being unlike anything those college-aged and older folks had ever seen or heard before! I never saw any of those gigs, being busy running up and down I-85 all the time, but Bastin’s or Danny’s reports were always favorable, and often hilarious. Danny made sure that Shorty (and Lena) got to and from the gigs from Rocky Mount on time (and sober, if at all possible) and collected the money for them to make sure they weren’t short-changed.
In addition to the club jobs, Shorty was one of the top performers at the now legendary concert series at UNC/Chapel Hill in late March of 1973 (all three nights of which were taped by yours truly, of course). During his performance, Shorty went into his Elvis Presley impression, swiping Lena’s wig off her head (to her great mortification) and putting it on his as an added prop! Oh, to have had a truly portable video camera in those days!! Another session of eleven songs near the end of April “filled out” the proposed LP very nicely, with one of the songs cut coming from my request of Shorty to “do the dirtiest song you can think of!” He did. I hope that the three of us made Shorty and Lena’s life better for him in some way, even though we could be viewed in this century as non-p.c. and paternalistic in our actions.
Shorty was always paid by me (as were all those I recorded), but often Danny would hold some of his fees aside – at one time, Shorty even had his own bank account (with Danny’s assistance) so that his money didn’t disappear quite so quickly. In fact, before the April, 1973 sessions in Elm City, I insisted on going grocery shopping with the two of them. I knew how marginally they lived – the first house that I knew Shorty and Lena to occupy was a fairly large farm house, decaying, with a shallow dug well in the back yard with algae and the like growing on the surface. One pushed back the flora and fauna to get at the water, and it probably wasn’t terribly healthy. Both Shorty and Lena were serious wine drinkers and I wanted them to have a good selection of solid food on hand to counter their tendency. On occasion, I gather that their behavior veered into the sociopathic… just ask Danny, or Val Wilmer (or read her autobiography)… although I never witnessed anything that serious. Poverty ain’t pretty, no matter how rose colored the glasses.
Danny kept some things going for Shorty after Bruce returned to the UK and I either went North or kept busy elsewhere in the SE. I did record Shorty one more time when he was living in Sharpsburg in 1975, getting another eleven songs from him that included a number of sacred pieces as well as his take on the Ivory Joe Hunter classic, “I Almost Lost my Mind”. After that final session, I lost track of Shorty and to some extent Danny – I know that Shorty died before I stopped field recording trips for good – as other ideas needed to be pursued, other musicians needed to be tracked down and maybe recorded. I quit after 1980, my final recording session being Cephas & Wiggins in that summer.
Danny McLean still lives in NC, has gotten married, has three kids, and is working hard to make ends meet in these United States, often a difficult process in the best of times and these are NOT the best of times no matter what you read in your newspapers or are told by your television. He is a gentle man and a gentleman who has made the lives of folks like us a little bit richer for his actions. I also hope that all of us made Shorty’s life a bit better: It’s hard to tell, you know, what sort of impact we made… other than “different”. Shorty lived in as serious a state of poverty as I had seen up to that time (Glenn Hinson has told me of a former musician that he met, by then a blind double-amputee who lived in one room of a two-room shack with a dirt floor in greater Durham, NC and had all his “stuff” and rubbish in the other room). Possibly Cecil Barfield of Plains, GA (a/k/a “William Robertson” [O&S #44]) lived under worse conditions than Shorty and Lena… I don’t know, but that’s a different story. All I can say here is, “Thanks, Danny”.
Peter B. Lowry
B&R #180 – Jun 2003, p.14.
Published as: “The Stuff Was Still There!” Recording and Collecting in the South Eastern USA, 1970 – 1980. Travelling and Recording the Blues by Peter B. Lowry. Blues & Rhythm 248 (April 2010) pp. 8/9. In edited form.