Put on my Clothes and Look Like Somebody Else

By  |  March 7, 2017
Lena and John Henry Fortescue in Elm City, North Carolina (ca. 1972). Photo by Danny McLean Lena and John Henry Fortescue in Elm City, North Carolina (ca. 1972). Photo by Danny McLean

The spirit of Southern outsider music has taken partial possession of many artists through the years—Charlie Feathers comes to mind, as do Link Wray, Hasil Adkins, and the train-obsessed 1920s banjo player Willard Hodgins. But as a fully realized manifestation—eccentricity expressed as bizarre and beautiful words and sounds—that spirit was at least thrice incarnate in the twentieth century: in the persons of Tennessee ballad singer Hamper McBee, Georgia banjo player Abner Jay, and Guitar Shorty of Elm City, North Carolina. Each was a master of his style of music, and in each case that style was an idiosyncratic mashup of genres. McBee would have caused a nationwide swoon had he put his amber voice to work in Nashville; instead, he sang mainly British folk ballads and old mountain songs. Jay mixed jagged laments about modern war and poverty and drugs with minstrel-era plantation elegies. 

John Henry “Guitar Shorty” Fortescue was a powerful and nimble guitarist and singer, a quick-witted improviser with a fluency in many blues idioms. He liked to do a vocal imitation of a harmonica, capping lines with Sonny Terry–style high whoops. He was a master of the spoons. You can hear Blind Boy Fuller’s influence in some of Shorty’s guitar playing, but, for the most part, little of the jaunty pointillism of the Piedmont blues. Shorty had a good dose of Lightnin’ Hopkins, too, lots of boogie-woogie, and his own countrified version of jump blues. His voice was plaintive like Robert Pete Williams’s, but while Williams sang as if a dire realization was just sinking in, Shorty sounded like he knew a work-around. 

Guitar Shorty mentored the Beatles and Elvis. He recorded fifty songs for a major New York label. He played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When he wasn’t working as a musician and farm laborer, he was a policeman, a minister, and an FBI agent. 

Or so he said. The life story that Guitar Shorty claimed as his own was a mixture of facts, lies, and fantasy. Because he lived so far outside the margins of mainstream society, little formal documentation exists of his comings and goings in the world. After his death in 1976, he left hardly a trace—other than his music.

 

In 1970, Danny McLean was twenty-three years old and just home from the Army. Late one morning he was driving in Rocky Mount (the eastern North Carolina city that was Thelonious Monk’s early-childhood home) when he encountered a short African-American man walking along the sidewalk strumming a guitar, and a woman walking about twenty feet behind him. McLean, who is white, played guitar, and he was curious about the man’s music. He offered them a ride, and Shorty and his wife, Lena, got into the car.

Shorty had been playing on the street for tips, and he and Lena were glad to have a lift home to Elm City, about ten miles away. But the three ended up riding around together all day, visiting at Shorty and Lena’s house, then at McLean’s in Rocky Mount—where Shorty played “Ain’t No Grave Going to Hold My Body Down” for McLean’s grandfather, who was brought to tears—then back in Elm City. When they finally parted company that night, they made a plan to get together again the next day. 

But upon arriving in Elm City at the agreed-on time, McLean spotted Shorty and Lena on the side of the highway, trying to hitch to Rocky Mount. McLean still doesn’t know why they decided to head off on a busking expedition at precisely the time he was due at their house. Regardless, Shorty finessed the situation. He said, “We knew you’d find us.” 

The three developed a solid friendship in the coming months, and McLean visited the Fortescues often. Soon there grew to be a group of young, white blues enthusiasts who, through McLean, met Shorty and spent time visiting and recording him. Among them were Ken Bass, a musician from the nearby town of Wilson; folklorists Peter Lowry and Bruce Bastin; and British jazz and blues documentarian Val Wilmer. 

McLean started distributing homemade demo tapes to anyone he thought would appreciate Shorty’s music. He and Bass booked Shorty recording time at a radio station, and the songs taped there, along with some field recordings, were released on Bastin’s Flyright label in 1972 as the album Carolina Slide Guitar. Additional cuts appeared on the Flyright compilations Carolina Country Blues and Another Man Done Gone

In 1973, Lowry assembled an album of front-porch recordings of Shorty, and he issued them as Alone in His Field on his Trix label. Guitar Shorty began playing gigs around Chapel Hill and Durham. Musician Lightnin’ Wells remembers Shorty’s self-congratulation after one performance: “Guitar Shorty put on a good show for you, didn’t he?” He left the stage applauding loudly for himself. He was hardly alone in appreciating his performances. At pass-the-hat gigs where other musicians might draw thirty or forty dollars a night, Shorty would pull in a hundred.

 

Hamper McBee, Abner Jay, and Guitar Shorty were all brilliant talkers whose spoken-word performances are on a par with their music. Shorty recorded improvised plays, what Lowry has called “fables,” in which, like a ventriloquist, he provided voices for all the characters while playing a soundtrack of hybrid Carolina-Texas guitar lines. These recordings demand concentrated listening, because the words are sometimes mumbled or slurred and are always surreal.

The magnum opus of Alone in His Field is “Pull Your Dress Down,” an eight-minute, three-character saga of an underage girl’s attempt to seduce Guitar Shorty and his simultaneous struggle to fend off the FBI. It’s a spectacle of phrases and ideas connected by the sort of diaphanous logic that visits most people only at bedtime, slipping into hypnagogia. When the FBI agent announces himself, Shorty counters, “My name is FBI, too. I got two eyes, look out of my ’oth-both eyes.” Presumably spying through the window, the agent says that the girl “better put on her petticoat.” “I ain’t got no petticoat!” she blurts. “I got a—young dress on.” Stalling, Shorty quizzes the G-man about whether he’s clothed or naked. The drama ends with the girl warbling a threatening declaration of love: “If I ever see you with another woman / I’m going to sure put my razor ’round your neck.” In the album’s notes, Lowry says that this is one of Shorty’s more coherent and linear performances of this kind.

Shorter and less explicable is “Like a Damn Fool (The Bear Blues).” In it he trades insults with a bear and argues with his mother when she forbids him from keeping the bear as a pet. The story is sidetracked by a disagreement with his mother over what age woman he should associate with—not, he insists, an old woman with a “foot long as from here to New York City.” His mother scolds him for calling her “fart-face,” and in an exchange with the bear, Shorty asks, “What the hell you so goddamn big for?” (The bear’s response: “Uhhhhhh. My foot.”) 

Of course, you can’t psychoanalyze Guitar Shorty on the basis of his recordings. But there is one theme that you can’t miss: a sense that his identity was fluid, even intermittent. In “Easter Monday,” a song about having to work on what was traditionally a holiday in North Carolina, he resolves, “I’m going to put on my clothes, baby. I’m going to look like somebody else.” In “Pull Your Dress Down,” Shorty’s character does his best to convince the FBI agent that he’s anybody but Guitar Shorty—he is the FBI, or the enigmatic “F. B. Fruiter,” or simply not Guitar Shorty. “Jessie Jones,” about a gunslinging “bad little man,” contains more than a hint of fictional autobiography; Lowry comments in the liner notes that it “could be a case of projected fantasy.” More than any of these pieces, though, “The Bear Blues” plays with the idea of being and not being oneself: 

Damn if I ain’t got to looking in the glass at my own damn self
Thought I was a damn bear
Looked in the damn glass, I broke the damn mirror my damn self
I said, Goddamn, I’m a bear too

 

Guitar Shorty is often pictured with the large Kay guitar Ken Bass gave him and which he covered in flower decals. Poverty bred resourcefulness when it came to his music. If a string broke, he would tie it back together below the bridge. He used an improvised capo, a pencil held down over the strings with a rubber band. 

According to Lowry, Shorty and Lena were “bottom-of-the-trough” poor. From 1967 to 1975, they lived in a barely habitable shack on land owned by a white man for whom Shorty did occasional farm labor. (Bass remembers that Shorty’s hands were so calloused that the broken edges of the bottleneck he played with never cut him.) The house had no running water, a woodstove for heating and cooking, walls patched with cardboard, and few decorations other than a cluster of portraits of Jesus and the insert from a package of pantyhose showing a friendly young woman modeling the product. Although there was sometimes electricity to power an unreliable TV, photos of the interior show lanterns and bottles of lamp oil. 

Some of Shorty’s friends have wondered in retrospect whether the ways they tried to help him—professionally, financially, nutritionally—might have been somewhat problematic. Peter Lowry wrote, “I hope that the three of us [Lowry, McLean, and Bruce Bastin] made Shorty and Lena’s life better for [them] in some way, even though we could be viewed in this century as non-p.c. and paternalistic in our actions.” Their efforts on behalf of the Fortescues were not confined to publicizing Shorty’s music. Lowry related a time when he “insisted on going grocery shopping with the two of them,” trying to ensure that they would spend at least some of Shorty’s recent concert earnings on food, rather than wine. McLean—whose friendship with Shorty was by far the closest and most sustained in the group—encouraged and helped Shorty to set up a bank account for his music earnings, trying to make his money last longer, and often drove him on errands and to gigs. Shorty needed all the help he could get. Their relationship with Shorty wasn’t ethnography, requiring hands-off objectivity. It was friendship.

Almost every story about Guitar Shorty involves, in some way or another, his and Lena’s dependence on wine. (“Too much wine, always the wine,” McLean told me.) Shorty would ask McLean to take him on mundane errands, and once in the car would direct him to what would turn out to be a juke joint or liquor store. In an unreleased home recording of Stick McGhee’s hit “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” Shorty sings with the galloping exuberance of newly requited love. 

Shorty had occasional near-brushes with success beyond his core group of fans. In December 1970, the Allman Brothers played a concert in an eastern North Carolina tobacco warehouse. Recognizing an opportunity to promote Shorty, McLean took a tape player to the show and found his way backstage. Gregg Allman, perched on the back of a couch with a girl, was uninterested in the recording that McLean played for them, but Duane was so excited that he tried to talk Gregg into going to meet Guitar Shorty that night. Gregg quashed the idea, reminding him how early they had to leave in the morning. Duane Allman was dead less than a year later.

It’s rumored that there was talk of bringing Guitar Shorty to Japan in the mid-seventies, another potential breakout. But in late May of 1976, Shorty went into Nash General Hospital in Rocky Mount and died, reportedly from cirrhosis. He was about fifty-two years old.  

 

Around 2010, Lightnin’ Wells sent Danny McLean a copy of the 1992 Flyright album Play My Juke-Box: East Coast Blues, 1943–1954. Wells wanted McLean to hear one of the songs on the album, “I Love That Woman,” recorded in 1952 for the Savoy label by a performer called Hootin’ Owl. Savoy never released the record. You can hear right away that the young man who sings, plays guitar, and imitates a harmonica is probably a Carolinian. Shorty’s friends say there’s no question that Hootin’ Owl is Guitar Shorty. Bruce Bastin even credited Shorty with the song on Play My Juke-Box. To my ear, the singing and playing, and the song itself, are too conventional and structured for me to be sure it’s Shorty—although the harmonica imitation sure sounds like him. But I’ll defer to the opinion of those who knew him. Lowry wrote, “It only takes a few bars to hear that Mr. Fortescue was speaking some truth about previously recording after all!” 

That the record exists means Shorty might have attracted the attention of Savoy owner Herman Lubinsky in Newark, New Jersey, who would have decided to record Shorty for the same label that put out Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra. That’s not quite the same as making fifty records in New York, as Shorty boasted, but it’s impressive, and it leads one to wonder about some of his other tall tales. His portrayal of Elvis, after all, is said to have been so good that it might have been taken from life. 

McLean remembers an occasion when Shorty took him into an Elm City pool hall. Carolina Slide Blues had just come out, and Shorty was making sure that everyone knew about it. He introduced Danny—as he sometimes did, to McLean’s discomfort—as his manager. “I’ve heard your record,” said a man sitting nearby. “As a matter of fact, I just got back from New York, and they were playing it on all the jukeboxes. I hope your manager is giving you all the royalties you got coming.” Shorty took the lie for what it was worth and didn’t question McLean’s honesty. 

The man at the pool hall had, with that remark, created a fantasy as outrageous and beautiful as any that Shorty himself could have invented: a world in which every jukebox in New York City was stocked with Flyright and Trix records, and a vast listening public clamored for rural Carolina blues. In a world like that, Guitar Shorty might well have had a talking pet bear, terrorized the Wild West, and outwitted the FBI. He might have played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and shepherded the Beatles and Elvis on their way to fame. Why the hell not?


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Sarah Bryan is a folklorist, a fiddler, and the editor of the Old-Time Herald and the Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal. She lives and works in Durham, North Carolina.