As a result of my piece in Blues & Rhythm (#248) that dealt with North Carolina’s Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue) and Danny McLean, I received a long letter from Danny after he got his copy of the magazine. This is what follows, minimally tampered with by myself:
Thanks for sending the BLUES & RHYTHM magazine to me with the article on Guitar Shorty. I’d never heard of the magazine before that I recall… I hope it can last. Magazines are folding, left and right, over here. I enjoyed the article although I felt a little uncomfortable with so much of the article mentioning me, but it brought back some fond memories and also a little sadness. I’m going to try to reflect on my thoughts about those days as I go through your article again.
I’m glad you mentioned the loaner Studebaker – I remember that vividly. It was my Mother’s car that was in the shop; I didn’t have one yet. I had been out of the Army for just a few weeks, if that long. Actually, Shorty was walking North as I was driving North on the Edgecombe side of Main St.: The traffic moves South on the Nash side of Main. You’re right about the two lanes of traffic – the inside lane (close to the businesses) was used to find or back out of a parking place (which were diagonal). The other lane, closer to the railroad [tracks down the center], was used for “moving along”! At that time, there was still a bit of business [in] downtown [Rocky Mount, NC] – the Nash side was more active with the department stores, drugstores, barber shops, shoe stores, and ladies shops. It was crowded in the evenings and packed on Saturdays.
On the [opposite] Edgecombe side of the street were some larger furniture stores, a couple of music stores, some city offices, a bank and at the northernmost end where it crossed Thomas St, a few Black businesses, although most of the Black businesses were on the Edgecombe side of Thomas St. When I first saw Shorty and Lena, they were down on the southernmost end of the Edgecombe side of Thomas St. You are right that I was “pole-axed” by his playing. He was the first bottleneck player I’d ever seen up close.
It’s probably hard for guitar players nowadays, or even just music enthusiasts to realize, that not many people knew what “bottleneck” guitar was back then [early 70s]. I can remember in college asking a guy about “bottleneck guitar” after reading about it on a Rolling Stones LP (I think Brian Jones was listed as playing rhythm and bottleneck guitar) and he told me it was because he was probably moving “F” chord shapes up and down the neck. This didn’t make much sense to me, but I didn’t play [then] and this guy was really good guitar player I thought, so I took his word for it! Even after meeting Shorty, I can remember friends going to a small club in Greenville [NC] where The Allman Brothers played occasionally after their first LP came out and coming back and talking about that guy with the glass on his finger. Of course, I did read album notes, so I knew about bottleneck playing, but he [Duane Allman] was the first they’d ever seen up close.
By the way, I did really get into the blues while in the Army, but in college I had albums by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, the RBF anthology by Sam Charters [“The Country Blues”] (which really came into focus later on) and Josh White played at East Carolina [College] when I was a sophomore [second-year student] or junior [third-year]. At the time I just saw the blues as part of “real” folk music which I should know something about if I was going to listen to Bob Dylan or Patrick Sky! Within a year or so of meeting Shorty, though, I had stopped listening to Dylan… or any pop music pop music, for that matter!
I don’t think that getting involved with Shorty was any kind of brave act on my part. I simply liked him and his music. There seemed to be more “meanness” and prejudice in the Rocky Mount area compared to where I had grown up in Fuquay Springs in southern Wake County, but I had put up with enough mindless junk during my ten months in the Army to pay too much attention to anybody else’s culturally influenced attitudes. Besides, we all live “in our heads” to a large degree. I worked at that time physically to make money to buy records and listen to music – if I wasn’t at Shorty’s, I would leave town to go to Chapel Hill to hear music in clubs there. That’s how I found [the club] The Endangered Species – it was in a basement under a convenience store! At first I went there to catch The Red Clay Ramblers as I was just getting into string band music. Later on I saw Mike “Lightnin”’ Wells there. I took a tape to the bartender to see if maybe Shorty could play there, and he said “Yeah. Bring him.” I think when Shorty played there, he made more than anybody who played there ever did! Groups would make $50-$60 (as you said, it was “pass-the-hat”), but t seemed like Shorty always made at least $100 [a night]. At the same time, I was working 6 days a week at Melton’s [Barbecue] for $88/week!
Before he started playing there, sometime my pay would take a big hit when I went to see him and get him food (and wine, although I’d try not to buy it directly for him, but he’d want some “change” for “other things” and wine was “other things”). Eventually I started doing construction so I’d have more time to do other enjoyable things or if I did work overtime, at least I’d get paid for it! The Melton’s job was a salary job – 8:00 am – 8:00 pm, six days a week.
I still don’t remember sending a demo tape to Happy Traum; maybe I did, but I don’t know why I would have. I knew Chris Strachwitz had a record label and had recorded or put out some good blues (notably Mance Lipscomb) [so I sent him a tape]. In fairness to Chris, part of the reason for his rejection [of Shorty] was that there was another guitarist playing with Shorty on the tape I sent him. A friend of mine, Freddie Scott, who was an incredible musician by any account, played on that [tape as well]. But as good as Freddie was, Shorty, of course, didn’t need any accompaniment. I should have thought twice before I sent that particular tape to Chris. Now, I wish I had it back, as Freddie has passed on.
I really need to mention someone else here, and that is Ken Bass. Ken was a guitar player from Wilson [NC] who came to see me after I had posted some rant in the local Record Bar [shop] about how all the rock bands of that time were stealin’ all the old blues songs. I can’t remember how long I’d known Shorty before Ken showed up, but it was surely less than 8 or 9 months. Anyway, Ken was a great and modest musician and he certainly understood what Shorty was doing better than I did! Ken’s the one who found the Harmony guitar for Shorty – the one that Shorty ended up putting flowers on [and is on the cover of his Trix album]. It was a great sounding guitar for him, if a little big. Before that, Shorty’s guitar was really lousy – really not much more than a toy. When I recorded him, he used my Yamaha, which really had too narrow a neck for his farm-worked fingers, then [my] “Everly Bros.” [Gibson] which had a wonderful neck, but not a good blues sound. I finally got that little National which I was really excited about at first. I knew a lot of bottleneck players used Nationals, but I thought Shorty sounded better on regular acoustic. Although a lot of people really liked them and I thought Bukka White sounded fantastic on his, I think Nationals are really overrated. Tonally, I think any good acoustic sounds better, but it’s so much a part of the blues image now*.
Back to Ken [Bass]. He was level-headed and probably more focused than I was at the time. He also arranged with a friend of his to record Shorty on “real” equipment at a radio station. That’s when we first knew his whole name… he always said his name was just John Henry. When he saw that nice big microphone in front of him, he grinned and announced, “This is John Henry Fortescue from Belhaven, North Carolina…”** Ken and I fell over ourselves to get him to repeat his last name – I had known him a full year before I knew his last name! I’d got to believing his last name really was Henry.
It was strange to realize [that] I got up the nerve to write BLUES UNLIMITED because it put me in touch with Bruce Bastin and eventually
* [Thanks to Blind Boy Fuller, the National became associated with the Piedmont styles of playing – it was also louder than a wooden guitar! Then there were recent “discoveries” Son House, and Booker White. (pbl)]
** When I found out that Shorty was from Belhaven [NC], I told him we would go there sometime, so I could see where he came from and maybe find out more about his musical background. Well, of course, we never went and to this day I’ve still never been to Belhaven!
you [Peter B. Lowry]. I couldn’t believe it when the LP finally came out. The only thing that bothered me (besides quoting me so much, as if I were some kind of authority) was that the LP was called “Carolina Slide
Guitar”. To my mind, “slide” was what all the rock groups and modern players called it [and did]. Certainly not the first generation [of blues players], but maybe some did. Shorty was excited about it – it gave him some creditability, I guess. [PROOF – When Bastin first visited Shorty with Danny, his copy of the LP was nailed to a tree in front of his house for all to see!] So many people, even in his own community, would be dismissive of him or barely tolerate him; some even made fun of him. But others did recognize he was unique and welcomed him into their homes. This record was real and surprised those who thought of him as some [sort of] jiver.
You mention that Shorty was a “totally musical being at all times” and I don’t think a truer statement could be made of him. I remember I went to the Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention (I think in ’71) and bought a fiddle from George Gruhn (for $20!). At some time, maybe a year and a half later, I was at Shorty’s and he saw it in my car and I showed it to him. I don’t think that he’d ever had one in his hands before, but probably after less than 2 minutes scratching around on it, some archaic rhythm groove erupted from it and he launched into a strange version of his namesake. I’d give anything if I had recorded his version of “John Henry” on fiddle. Then he put it down and went back to his guitar.
Danny McLean – Aug 2010
Published in edited form w. #64 in B&R #255 – Xmas 2010 (pp.20-22)