Continuing with Danny McLean’s NC memories of Shorty, a.o. from his letter to me:
It was a nice time when Valerie Wilmer and Terri Quay[e] came to visit Shorty. We went to see him at Willie Johnson’s who was pretty good on guitar and really a likable and photogenic person. He was evidently a bootlegger: I went to see Willie one time after this and found he had been sent to prison. Valerie took some great photos during her stay there.* When Shorty passed away, she and I guess friends of hers sent Lena a substantial check. I helped Lena cash it, but I’m afraid it did not last her long as she had to announce it and there were always vultures around whose ears perked up when they heard of someone’s good fortune, no matter what the circumstances. “When I had money, I had friends for miles around…” is one of the truer blues lines and seems to apply to every culture or group in my experience.
I always felt bad that I didn’t see Shorty as much his last year or so – I was working more and further away sometimes. Friends of mine started visiting him more. He got to liking their “chicken cigarettes”. (“That smoke smells like chicken! Let me have one o’ them chicken cigarettes!”) Sometimes I’d go see him, and his new friends would be partying harder than I like to, so I’d leave. I didn’t resent this. I was glad to see people visiting him – he enjoyed it, and that was good. I just can’t relate to a roomful of people. I also worried that it might affect his deal with his landlord. Shorty’s cabin was fairly miserable, but it was, as far as I know, free for him to stay in. As weird as some of the white folks around Elm City were, I don’t know how they would react to the cars and [what were then called] hippies that appeared there more frequently.
When Shorty got sick, I didn’t even know about it. A bricklayer’s helper who knew Shorty and worked in the area where I was building houses at the time told me one day that Shorty had been in the hospital, but was back home and fine. I found out a couple of days later that his information was not right – that Shorty had, in fact, not gone home, but had died and had already been dead when this man was passing this information to me. I was shocked and ashamed that I had not known and had not responded immediately to the news I had gotten.
So enters the sadness of those times – I can’t remember the time-line now. It was probably earlier that Ken and I had gone to Bethel to record the great Jack Jordan: he was technically the best guitar I’d ever heard – much to our ears like Rev. Gary Davis. We listened to him at the carport of, I think, his sister’s house on a Sunday. He didn’t say much, just played like crazy. A policeman drove by, backed up, got nosey and came up and insinuated to his sister that we (Ken & I) might be trying to buy/sell him (Jordan) drugs which really made me mad, not just because neither of us did or cared anything drugs, but because we were listening to this great guitar player and this dumb policeman couldn’t hear that and ruined the day. Because, after he left, Jordan became a bit uneasy and stopped playing. Then to top it off, the tape [we made] had a screech in it that pretty much obliterated the music. (I think I may have left the monitor switch on. This was a Concord tape recorder that otherwise served me well. I recorded on it often and listened to it all the time in my car as cars didn’t have tape players then and by then I had pretty much quit listening to the radio). Anyway, I gave this tape to Bruce (Bastin) for safe-keeping. He said he hoped that someday the technology would evolve that could eliminate that screech. I hope that day has come and I hope Bruce still remembers it and has the tape. I want to know if Jordan’s playing was really as incredible as I thought it was that day.
A little while after that Sunday, Mr. Jordan had a stroke. I heard about it through Elester (Anderson), went to see him (Jack). Inexplicably, he wasn’t staying with his sister’s, but staying in some shack next to the railroad track in Bethel [NC]. Maybe that’s where he stayed most of the time, but after a stroke I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t with his sister or somewhere where someone could help him. This place was horrible and, besides having the stroke, he was blind. (I don’t know if he was completely blind, but pretty near so.) I don’t know if the place had electricity or not, but I had to leave the door open to be able to see in that room. He asked if I had my guitar. I went and got it and I remember him struggling to play, just trying desperately to make a “cowboy ‘D’ chord”. A few weeks earlier he had been all over the fretboard. He started to cry. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life and certainly was at that time. It still saddens me in the retelling of it. I left there with my head in a spin. Mr. Jordan died not too long after that.** There was another sad experience with one “Fan” Harris who was brother to the great “Buzz” Harris (who was “as good as Blind Boy Fuller”, according to some). This was in Tarboro with another policeman who called the guitar a banjo and had little appreciation for “Fan’s” playing.
As you know, I thought a lot of Lester Anderson [a/k/a Elester, or Les T] – I guess he was my favorite. I was always hoping he would see an album with his name on it; I don’t think any of us expected him to die… I know I certainly didn’t. He had mostly healthy habits, I think. He did smoke, I know, but if he drank, I never saw him, or if he did while I was there, his actions never betrayed it. He was just a good man, his family – his wife and children – were all hospitable. I remember him making little wooden toys for the children in that trailer park when they still lived in Tarboro [NC]. His boys had a band called Ecology Ltd, I think. Lester, Jr, you know, got to where he could play like his father some. I saw him at a grocery store about a year ago and he asked me if there was any way I could get ahold of recordings of his dad. Since then, “Lightnin’” Wells told me he was in contact with maybe a grandson or somebody in the family (I think, online) who was talking about going to The Library of Congress to get recordings of Lester, Sr.
Lester reminded me of my grandfather, although a lot younger, in that he seemed to have almost no ego, but really cared for and paid attention to every person in his life. Anyway, when he died, it really affected me. It seemed there was enough sadness in the blues, or things and people that had drawn me to the blues. Of course, at the same time, I was getting more and more into old time music. I finally realized blues was not necessarily the superior music. They’re all part of the same thing.
As I said, the focus on me in your article was a little disconcerting. I really did nothing and failed to follow up on so many leads and associations that I really should have and could have, but work or my own incompetence kept me from doing a lot of stuff I should have done and this continued even with my interest in old time music. I’d find out about somebody who used to play or knew somebody who had played with so-and-so, and fail to follow it up like I really should have.
But gladly people like you and Bruce (and Kip Lornell) kept at it and were more organized and simply better at it. I don’t know what it all means or if any of it matters nowadays. I hope it does. I think I mentioned Bruce’s book somewhat earlier – I had CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES, but had never read RED RIVER BLUES until I borrowed it from “Lightnin’” Wells a couple of years ago. It’s just mind-boggling how much beautiful information is in that book, how many people and places y’all visited all up and down the East Coast. I used to envy y’all when you’d pass through talkin’ about Roy Dunn, or Henry Johnson, or whoever. I think Baby Tate was one of your favorites. It’s also hard to fathom the time that has passed, especially when I think that John Cephas who, I guess, as one of the last you probably recorded, has had a whole career and now passed on. Where does the time go?
I’m also a little disturbed because, during the last couple of years, my interest in the old blues has been renewed for some crazy reason and I can’t find all my old records. I’ve lent lots of them out. I know where some of them are, but others I’ll never know. I don’t even have Shorty’s albums (but I do know where they are).
I append to this a paragraph in which Danny describes his life and state-of-affairs, just so the readers don’t think him some dilettante just lounging around! He happens to be a regular guy who stumbled upon someone and something interesting, a serendipitous occurrence with no other explanation. And he followed it up and kept with it as best he could around his “real” life – folks like Bruce, Kip, and I (as free-lancers or academics) took large periods of time out of our lives to do nothing else. That’s a lot easier to my way of thinking than actually LIVING there, full-time, and trying to live one’s life around the musical adventures that happen! Most folks in his situation would have probably driven right on by, possibly pondering upon what they had seen – few would have stopped to find out themselves. Real life is not easy.
Danny has OK’d my ending with this paragraph, even though he feels a bit uneasy about it, not wanting to sound a complainer or anything. I do append it to show how difficult this sort of work can be – my previous pieces deal with my comings and goings: this is from one who lived there.
I’m sorry I haven’t kept up with you or Bruce all these years…. In my defense, I’ve worked an awful lot through my life trying to make ends meet. In the late seventies – early eighties I was a furniture maker, which I loved. After I got married, my job evolved (devolved!) into working for a millwork business, still doing a lot of furniture – to working for 17 years as a timber framer. Most of those years I’ve worked 60 or more hours a week. During the mid to late 80s through the mid 90s it wasn’t uncommon for me to work 70 – 80 hrs/week. There was one year I actually worked 100 hrs/week a couple of times. This was when my children were growing up. You need money because of that, but you also need to be spending time with them. I don’t know if you even knew I have three children (all boys) – I now have 2 grandchildren (boys) and have been largely unemployed this past year.
* Read Val’s autobiography (Mama Said There’d be Days Like This: My Life in the Jazz World: Women’s Press (1989) London.) for details of her experiences, often graphic and frightening.
**But somehow I guess [near] that time Bruce Bastin interviewed him because there is more in RED RIVER BLUES than I ever knew about him. Bruce was always good at taking notes and being focused and thorough. I wish I could have been more like that, but I never thought of myself as a scholar or researcher.
— Danny McLean (August 2010)
published w. #63 in edited form in B&R #255 – Xmas 2010 (pp. 20-22).