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  • Writer's pictureJulie Branstetter

Elm City's Forgotten Blues Man

John Henry “Guitar Shorty” Fortescue was born on January 24th, 1923 in Belhaven, NC.

He lived just outside a small town known as Elm City, found midway between Rocky Mount and Wilson, North Carolina. He died on May 26, 1976 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and was buried at North Eastern Cemetery.

Guitar Shorty is an assertive guitar player and vocalist, and a master at spoons. He could fluently improvise from one blues idiom to another, and would vocally whoop like a harmonica in Sonny Terry's hands. Like many blues and jazz performers of the past, his life would be described in ways that might sometimes stretch the truth a little. Or maybe it was all true, one may never know. It has been said that Guitar Shorty mentored the Beatles and Elvis, recorded fifty songs for a major New York label, played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and when he wasn’t working as a musician and farm laborer, he was a policeman, a minister, and an FBI agent. Hmmmm…. Perhaps if he were a fisherman, he’d have lost the lunker and lived to tell about it too. Who knows, but, typical to blues musicians of the past, he lived the life and played the music on his slide guitar as good as the best of them.

You don’t hear about him around Elm City much. Perhaps little is actually known about him in this sleepy town. Elm City is a very special little town with its silent brick storefronts, refurbished train depot, bright shining silver water tower, century-old homes in various phases of splendor and some in squalor. Although, many as of late are receiving their new front porches, roofs, and coats of paint. How quickly the excitement comes back when the buildings are bought, cleaned out, refreshed, and sit in waiting. It's the little day dreams of snatching up a storefront and opening a cafe that keep me smiling from year to year. Maybe one day? But some of these buildings are being refurbished, but you’d have to walk and peek in the windows as much as we do to know it, unless of course you’re in the know. Elm City is the city of trees, cedars, oaks and yes, we still have elms mixed in with a glorious number of pecan trees all over town. In fact, I have two young elms in my backyard. The Cedar Grove cemetery greets you with a wrought iron arch that looks like a step back into the Twilight Zone. It’s a wonderful feeling to walk through time in the cemetery, surrounded by historical family names well known throughout town, shaded gravel paths, cobbled stone walls, and fields of soy or peanut growing nearby.

One has to wonder what this sleepy comfortable family town looked, felt, and sounded like when Guitar Shorty would sit on his porch and slide the guitar with his love, Lena, sitting close by.

Elm City has lost a number of things over the years, as many small towns just like her fall into ruin, but her heart beat is still strong and the people of Elm /city aren’t ready to watch her crumble. The hope is this little town will see business return to it, especially at a time when “farm to table” and “simple” are so much back in style. Box stores drain these little towns of their glory, but they don’t have to, not when people are looking for things off the beaten path. Elm City is just right off the beaten path, and boy, she would be pretty in a new dress.

Next time you get the chance, listen to some of these songs(below) by “Guitar Shorty.” In fact, do what we like to do. Sit on the porch, with that cold glass of "house wine" of the south (sweet tea), close your eyes, and drift back in time. That’s what makes the honeysuckle so sweet here in Elm City. Time stands still a little bit, and we like it that way.

"I Love That Woman"

"Scat Boogie"

"Mother's Dead and Gone"

"Easter Blues"

"Boogie Now"

"Boogie Now"

"Don't Cry, Baby"

"Like a Damn Fool" (language warning) lol

"Jessie Jones"

"Whistling Blues"

"Near the Cross"

"Shorty's Talking Boogie"

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