The African American Folklorist: An Un-recorded Legend of Bluegrass

May 11, 2021

Arnold Shultz is an African American fiddler and guitarist who was instrumental in the development of Bluegrass, along with other country-style music genres.

Born into a musical family, the unrecorded Kentucky legend made an impact on music up and down the Mississippi River, and introduced guitar chords, styles of play, and performances to the likes of Bill Monroe, known as the "Father of Bluegrass", and many others.

The son of a former slave, his family played hillbilly music and were professional touring musicians.

Shultz also broke racial barriers. He played with white musicians, black musicians, and in white establishments, black establishments, and elite homes.


However, Shultz was a coal miner by trade who didn’t want to be recorded, photographed, or anything resembling the limelight.

The African American Folklorist recently sat with The American Songster Dom Flemons, who recently co-moderated a panel about Arnold Shultz, about Shultz and his significant contributions to music and Kentucky history.

Below is an exerpt of our conversation:

Dom Flemons:   Arnold Shultz was an African American man who is an itinerant musician and a coal miner from Morgantown, Kentucky, and his big claim to fame because he didn't make recording is that he had a significant influence on a young man by the name of Bill Monroe, who would later go on to become the father of bluegrass music as we know it. And over time, the legend around this man has grown and the more that we find information about his musical legacy, we find that his musical influence has dipped to other parts of country music beyond just bluegrass.

Lamont Jack Pearley: Correct me if I'm wrong, he was a fiddler, and a guitarist, and he thump picked?

Dom Flemons:  That's correct. See now, there are a couple of different stories about how he played guitar. There are a few stories that he picked it with his thumb and forefinger, but there are also stories that he played with the flat pit and that's sort of where we get into an area where it's very unclear. The facts that we have found is that no matter what type of music he was playing, he was such a versatile musician that he was the type that could pick up a number, just by one listen.

Lamont Jack Pearley:  Arnold also comes from a musical family, right?

Dom Flemons: That's correct. a cousin of Arnold Shultz mentioned that the Shultz family was a very big string band family. They had what she called a hillbilly music. She said that it was hillbilly music and they played it hillbilly.

Lamont Jack Pearley: The banjo is a black instrument. And we have this black families that at least one of the members instrumental in the shaping of a particular genre of music, that the foundational instrument is the banjo How is it that bluegrass lacks African American representation?

Dom Flemons:  Well, you know, one of the things that I always like to remind people is that bluegrass as a fully cohesive genre was invented during times of strict segregation. So in a similar way to the way that rhythm and blues is always going to be synonymous as black music, bluegrass will always be synonymous with white music because of that fact alone. The conversation that we get into when we begin to learn stories about people like Arnold Shultz is that we begin to find those marketing terms. We begin to find those sorts of social cues being pushed aside by stories that sort of just break the narrative as we know it. And as we've been told, again, one of the hardest parts of Arnold Shultz’ stories of course, he never made recordings.