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.