The first time I met Bill Monroe (regarded as the “Father of Bluegrass Music”) in May of 1963, he mentioned some of the people that influenced the development of the musical style that was later to be named after his band “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys”.
One name I had heard little about before that time was Arnold Shultz, a black fiddler who played Monroe’s home town of Rosine, KY, and who hired the young Monroe as a backup guitar player for dances at $5 a night.
Recently, I posted a column (which I had previously published on my own website, BlueGrassWest) on a Facebook group. It was written by musician/writer/folklorist Tony Thomas titled “Why Black Folks Don’t Fiddle”, addressing the question as to why there are so few contemporary black fiddle players. This elicited remarks by Richard S Brown, Mark Delany, and Mayne Smith:
Richard S Brown: ( . . . mentioning black musician Arnold Shultz) I know what Tony is getting at. I thought that it would be good to shine a light on a little known musician outside of Kentucky.
Peter Feldmann: Thanks to Bill Monroe, Arnold became better known. And yes, he was very influential among guitar players (his main instrument) of the area. The more I listen, the more obvious and essential the influence of black music as a vital part of our music becomes.
Mark Delaney: And thanks to Arnold Schultz, Bill Monroe became a better musician And quite possibly, made Bluegrass music possible. 🙂
Mayne Smith: I can think of other exceptions to the trend that Thomas discusses — Howard Armstrong (of Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong), LC Robinson, and Gatemouth Brown come immediately to mind. ( And while I’m at it, I’d like to mention the use of steel guitars by black players.) <> But I agree that Arnold Shultz has heroic (though barely acknowledged) importance, having influenced bluegrass rhythm through his early guitar accompanist, Bill Monroe; and the amazing development of Merle Travis’ virtuoso finger-picked guitar style that was a seminal inspiration to Chet Atkins. And thanks, Richard, for bringing Ike Everly into the conversation. I wasn’t aware (or had forgotten) that connection.
Peter Feldmann: I’m sorry Mayne, but I would have to disagree with your claim that Shultz influenced bluegrass *rhythm*. In listening to various forms of black music in the USA, it is my impression that rhythm in those forms — and in the forms that crossed the racial barrier to white music — jazz and swing, the rhythmic emphasis tends to be leaning backwards of the beat, while in bluegrass music, the rhythm is pushing forwards. It is in the musical scale that the black music is so important: the “blues” of bluegrass. We know how carefully Monroe listened to notes, eg. his “Ancient Tones”. That is where (it’s my guess, since no one alive knows what Shultz sounded like) that it was his use of scales that made the biggest impression. Those notes made so much difference . . . I recall a time working with a very well-known Oklahoma fiddler, where — while playing a Gospel song — I hit a flattened third and he stopped me, saying “Don’t play blues notes in a sacred song!”. The implication being that those note were the provenance of the Devil.
Mayne Smith: That’s a great story about avoiding blues notes with gospel songs. I agree with you, Peter, about the influence of blues tonality on Bill Monroe and many bluegrassers (maybe not Jim & Jesse). But this doesn’t mean that Shultz’s rhythmic sense wasn’t also important. Granted, Shultz’s lead fiddle would have been the dominant sound when the two of them played for dances all around Rosine, but I can’t imagine that Shultz didn’t show Bill on the guitar how he liked the rhythm to sound — using a thumb pick and one or two finger picks, I presume. (Both Edd Mayfield and Lester Flatt, important guitar players for the Blue Grass Boys, used that picking method and almost certainly got some instruction from Bill.) <> I also note the pervasive influence of blues sounds in country music; those variable thirds, fifths and flat-sevenths were appearing all around — Jimmie Rodgers, Delmore Brothers, even Roy Acuff to some degree. I suspect that Shultz’s rhythm was more influential than the blues tonality. <> But I wonder if there’s any other way to shed light on this question; it’s a shame that there’s no recording of Shultz playing anything at all.
I’d [also] like to cite Clyde Moody’s playing, in the thumb-picked style of rhythm guitar; I saw him play with Bill at Roanoke in 1965 and was deeply impressed by his right hand’s power and accuracy.
Richard S Brown: Peter, I might be more inclined to agree with Mayne only because I had discussed Arnold’s playing with Bill himself in 1966. Bill described Arnold’s playing as being “more bluesy” than his uncles. Bill did acknowledge that he had been influenced by Arnold’s playing on fiddle and guitar. I don’t think this would negate the effect of Pendleton Vandiver’s influence on the musical development of Bill Monroe!
Listen to the rhythm on Bill’s 1939 recording of “Mule Skinner Blues” to me the beat sounds close to rock and roll. Monroe himself said that his guitar rhythm on “Mule Skinner Blues” was the first recorded instance of bluegrass rhythm. I’m not sure I can buy that, but he was certainly referring to an aspect of guitar rhythm that he regarded as special and important.
I really get the gist of Tony Thomas’s thesis of his paper. I think that that feeling is pretty universal across racial lines! The “old time” sound may remind many people of a past that they want to forget. Fortunately, there have been some young people who have taken up the fiddle. I hope that I will see and hear more of them in the future.
Peter Feldmann: Mayne and Richard, I’m greatly enjoying this discussion. Of course, the topic of black and white musical interrelationships could go on forever — and of course, it is still happening. 🙂 Yes, Bill also spoke briefly to me about Arnold, again mentioning “bluesy” notes. This is why I feel that those notes were so very important in the development of a bluegrass concept in Bill’s head. But look at rhythm: You mention “Muleskinner Blues”. In Rodger’s original version, the tempo is way laid back. Compare that to Monroe’s driving tempo and forward-leaning rhythm. He even mentioned switching to guitar to push that rhythm forward!
Now, as to guitar, my understanding is that Shultz played a “fingerpicking” style of guitar. The mechanics of that style tend towards a “laid-back” rhythm! The thumb plays bass notes; the fingers play the melody — often slightly behind the beat in a syncopated way. Many outstanding guitarists from the 20s and 30s who played with a thumb pick (Maybelle Carter, Riley Puckett, Lester Flatt) all began as banjo pickers. When a finger is used in their style, it is usually used as an “offbeat”, *against* the rhythm, which is dictated by the thumb on bass string, plus a sweep across the strings going downwards. It has little in common with the “fingerpicking” sound. More later.
Richard S Brown: Yes that is true about finger picking,but for backing up a fiddle for a dance is a totally different style. That’s what Bill told me of Arnold’s playing with his uncle Pendleton. I think that finger picking was not what Arnold did for fiddle backup.
Peter Feldmann: I think you’re right. I never knew that Arnold and Uncle Pen played together, but the accompanying photo shows this combination. Fascinating! I’d pay a lot of money to hear some samples of Shultz’s guitar playing!
Richard S Brown: Mayne Smith I’m pretty certain that Arnold played differently than when playing with a fiddle for a dance…Bill did mention the pretty runs that Arnold would play when he was backing the fiddle. Thinking about this issue and it doesn’t make sense that someone would play a lead backup to a fiddle for a dance- can’t dance to that.
Peter Feldmann: Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I hope there’ll be more to come.