by William E. Lightfoot

Shultz, Arnold (Feb. 1886–14 Apr. 1931)
This article was published in print on March 15, 2013, and published online May 31, 2013. A version of this article appeared in African American National Biography.

A guitarist and fiddler, Arnold Shultz was born in a mining camp near Cromwell, in Ohio County, Kentucky. He was the firstborn son of David, who was born into slavery in 1844, and Elizabeth, a freeborn sixteen-year-old.

In 1900 when Shultz was fourteen, his half brother Ed, who worked on one of the many riverboats that cruised the Green River, gave him a guitar and a few lessons. Shultz honed his skills by becoming a member of the Shultz family band, playing guitar and fiddle in old-time British dance tunes. The region was quite rich musically, and one imagines that he also learned from such other notable black musicians in the area as Jim Mason, Amos Johnson, and Walter Taylor—as well as from traveling tent, medicine, and minstrel shows, and the wide variety of music performed on the showboats that docked at cities along the Green. Shultz himself, in fact, is remembered to have worked as a musician on these boats.

Shultz became a restless, itinerant wanderer who was away from the region for months at a time. It is highly likely that he traveled extensively during his years of maturation, enjoying, and perhaps performing with, the different kinds of musicians that worked on the many steamboat lines that cruised the Mississippi from Saint Paul to New Orleans and, especially, the Ohio from Cairo to Pittsburgh, docking at such cities as Evansville, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Owensboro, which was only a few miles from Cromwell.

Indeed, from 1919 to 1922 Shultz could have heard such remarkable musicians as Louis Armstrong , Baby Dodds , and Johnny St. Cyr , all of whom played in Fate Marable ‘s band that worked on the Streckfus excursion line out of Saint Louis. Moreover, one supposes that Shultz heard the outstanding Louisville jug bands—Clifford Hayes’s fiddling and Cal Smith’s guitar from the Dixieland Jug Blowers and Phil Phillips’s guitar work with Phillips’s Louisville Jug Band—as well as Bob Coleman’s Cincinnati Jug Band. Whatever his sources, Shultz assimilated the music of the 1920s—popular (both old standards and contemporary), blues, rags, religious music, old-time fiddle tunes and breakdowns, and jazz—as well as several instrumental techniques: flat-picking, finger style, and the open-tuned slide method on the guitar and both long-bow and short-bow fiddling styles. He became, in other words, a textbook example of a “musicianer,” one who specializes in a wide variety of instrumental styles.

As he got older Shultz began to spend more time in the region, wandering around like a minstrel with his huge guitar attached to his shoulders with a rope. He played at street corners, railroad crossings, company stores, family gatherings, taverns and roadhouses, house parties, square dances (both black and white), and churches. Tex Atchison, who later became the fiddler for the Western swing band the Prairie Ramblers, has said that when he was a young boy his mother would give him a dime for the movies, which he would in turn give to Shultz to play him a tune. Shultz, who carried his guitar on his back, would execute a kind of twisting motion with his hips that brought the guitar around into playing position in one fluid move. Shultz’s fiddling also impressed Atchison: “It had a lot of influence on me…. I picked up that [swing] stuff from Arnold Shultz, hearing him play that stuff. When I got to playing [with the Prairie Ramblers] that would come back to me…. Arnold Shultz was fifty years ahead of his time” (author’s interview with Atchison, 9 Aug. 1979). Atchison’s bluesy fiddling became a strong component of the Ramblers’ jazzy Western swing style that made the group a favorite on both records and coast-to-coast broadcasts of the National Barn Dance on Chicago’s powerful radio station WLS during the 1930s.

Tex Atchison was also struck by Shultz’s ability to play the guitar in such a way that four major elements of music—rhythm, melody, bass, and harmony—were produced simultaneously by only his thumb and forefinger, a style surely derived from ragtime piano playing: “I watched him play quite a bit. I was very interested in Arnold’s pickin’ because it was something I had never heard…. He played his own rhythm. He was the first that had ever done that, to play the lead and his own rhythm at the same time” (author’s interview with Atchison). Atchison later replaced Shultz in a local dance band fronted by Forrest (“Boots”) Faught, who confirmed Atchison’s assessment: “[Shultz] absolutely played the first lead guitar that I had ever heard played…. And people were amazed: ‘Lookey there—that man’s leading that music on that guitar and playin’ his own accompaniment!’” (author’s interview with Faught, 22 June 1978). In order to keep a raglike bass line operative continuously, Shultz was required to play chords out of first position, which led to a rich and complicated harmonic texture based on substitutions, inversions, and accidental chords. Shultz was of course not the first musician to play ragtime on a guitar, but it was essentially his approach that passed to such local players as Kennedy Jones, Ike Everly, Mose Rager, and the world-famous Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

Remarkably Shultz also informed a third substyle of country music, bluegrass. Bill Monroe, whose particular form of old-time string-band music was to become known as bluegrass (named for his band the Blue Grass Boys but also suggesting his emphasis on African American blues), was also from Ohio County. As a young man Monroe, too, came under the influence of Shultz’s superb musicianship: “There’s things in my music, you know, that come from Arnold Shultz—runs that I use in a lot of my music [on the mandolin]…. In following a fiddle piece or a breakdown, he used a [straight] pick and he could just run from one chord to another the prettiest you’ve ever heard…. Then he could play blues and I wanted some blues in my music too, you see” (Rooney, 23–24). Monroe even played with Shultz, accompanying his fiddling with a guitar.

Arnold Shultz was indeed a cultural hero, a bringer of culture, who brought back to his region a variety of music and instrumental techniques that enriched not only the lives of his fellow western Kentuckians but also those of the national community.

In the spring of 1931 Shultz fell ill while working in Evansville, Indiana. He returned to his home at the time in Morgantown, Kentucky, where he died on 14 April, having just turned forty-five. The cause of death was heart disease, according to official records. Many of Shultz’s family and friends believe, however, that his whiskey was poisoned by fellow musicians jealous of all the attention given Shultz. He was buried in an unidentified grave in the all-black Bell Street Cemetery in Morgantown. In 1994 a monument to Shultz was erected at the entrance to the cemetery; above and below an image of a guitar are the lines, “He was famous for his guitar picking” and “Dedicated to thumb picking and finger cording.”

In 1998 Shultz was inducted into the National Thumb Pickers Hall of Fame in Drakesboro, Kentucky, for his contributions to the famous Travis guitar style, but he equally belongs in the bluegrass and Western swing halls of fame. He was an extraordinarily talented walking musician who contributed substantially to the development of three distinct substyles of American country and western music.

Photo above, L-R: Arnold Shultz and Clarence Wilson