Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I have received a contract to write an entry on Picayune Butler for Oxford University Press's encylopedia of African American biography.   I am interested in anyone who can point me to sources about Butler himself as well as the song and converse's memoirs about him

You can reach me here,  I am starting a thread on him,  or at Blackbanjotony@hotmail.com my banjovial email

Banjovially Tony Thomas

Views: 1686

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Let me summarize what I am looking for.  1)any notice or discussion of the performance of someone calling himself Picayune Butler from original 19th century sources. 

 

  2)The assistance of someone familiar with mid 19th Century venues for minstrel entertainers to look at notices for  "The Original Picayune Butler" from the late 1850s and early 1860s from NY Newspapers.

   3)  Anyone who has an actual copy of the 1890 June SS Stewart letter by Charles Morrell about the banjo contests,  Unfortunately, that letter is NOT among the copies of the Journal RIT has up in PDF on the web site.

    4)   If anyone feels they are particularly familiar with the life, reputation, and carreer of Charles Morrell, please contact me offlist at blackbanjotony@hotmail

I recall having argued with Carl about this in a desultory way several years ago, specifically the point about whether the fairly early mulatto performer in New Orleans could have been the copper colored performer on Ohio riverboats &c., and subsequently still going in NYC in venues normally associated with blacked-up white performers.  Some of that argumentation happened in person, at an AEBG event or two, some of it was on this forum, and some I believe was on the old Tom Briggs Minstrel Banjo (Google group).

As far as I was concerned it was all of a piece with my earlier posts about Monkey Simon; and those were of a piece with my yet earlier posts about an early banjo that was then (but is not now) on display at The Hermitage.   It had come into the possession of the Hofstetter family at or before the sale of Andrew Jackson, Jr.'s family effects.  And I used published anecdotes about Monkey Simon, a famous slave jockey and banjoist, making fun of Gen. Jackson (to his face) in about 1811, long before his presidency.

I just like to tweak the blue-coated CW reenactors in this crowd occasionally with evidence that not only is it an instrument of African origin, but also its American roots were well established in the south, long before it was popularized, minstrel-ized, and commercially manufactured up nawth, in time for it to be part of the kit of CW soldiers.

I agree (I think) with Carl that Picayune Butler himself can be cited on both sides of that discussion; and we mostly know of him (or possibly them) from the viewpoint of white minstrel-show guys.

   Lets correct ourselves here.   As far as I know, no one in the 19th century claimed that there was a Picayune Butler who played banjo in New Orleans and beyond in the 1820s and 1830s who kept playing banjo up to the 1850s and 1860s.   

However,  there are multiple 19th century claims by people who said the New Orleans Butler did perform in the Ohio and Mississippi valley back in the day.

The summaries I have read of Morrell's article don't say that he said that the Pic Butler in the 1857  banjo contest was the Pic Butler of New Orleans or the Pic Butler of the song.  Converse does not say that.

   It is the haste of 20th and 21 Century scholars of minstrelsy and Black banjo history to make claims about the African American heritage of the banjo that started making unfounded connections between the New Orleans Butler and the 1857-61 New York entertainer or series of entertainers.

        

   

I just like to tweak the blue-coated CW reenactors in this crowd occasionally with evidence that not only is it an instrument of African origin, but also its American roots were well established in the south, long before it was popularized, minstrel-ized, and commercially manufactured up nawth, in time for it to be part of the kit of CW soldiers.

No current banjo scholars believe the banjo has an "African Origin."  Banjos originated in the Caribbean and its adjoining lands  All banjos including the earliest ones have no features found in any indigenous West African instrument.  There are no banjos in African and have never been any except those that came from the influence of European and North American banjo entertainers in the 19th and early 20th Centuries,  It is certainly true that banjos were originated by people of AFrican Descent in the New World,  but they are a New World invention.

The scholars who have made the most crucial contributions to our knowledge of this started out with the idea that banjos did originated in West or Central Africa and were brought over to the New World.  But the evidence that we have accumulated over the past 15-20 years indicates that this is not true.

Indeed,  a number of misinformed people have used the idea of African Origin of the banjo to create a new wrinkle on the old banjo is an American instrument concept, by claiming that Africans brought banjos to the US and the banjo diffused from the US to elsewhere, when it is fairly clear that banjos were created first in the Caribbean in the 17th century before being defused to North America.

          Finally,  I think it is indisputable based on all we really know of banjo history that while banjo playing among African Americans from the 1700s to the 1830s was fairly widespread, the most decisive event in the banjo's history was the adoption of the banjo by European American entertainers in the 1830s, some of whom became known as a minstrels.  The collaborations between these entertainers and musical instrument makers in the design of the frame headed banjo and the expansion of the banjo to five strings, and the popularization of the banjo in commercially viable music that spread from the Northeast was probably decisive in the spread and survival of the instrument, even among African Americans.

          One marker for this was the spread and popularity among enslaved African Americans of banjos based on these innovations and the subsequent development of the banjo industry.  Despite the romantic paternalism imagined by a number of revivalist musicians,  African American folk performers, let alone the many Black banjo entertainers, tended to favor the state of the art of the banjo industry, rather than holding on to four string banjos or gourd banjos and later onto A tuned banjos as opposed to C tuned banjos. 

           To be sure we need to put to rest the racist drive represented by Stewart and others who deny the African roots and the Afro-Caribbean origin of the banjo or that from the early 1700s until the 1830s Black people were almost the only players of the banjo.  At the same time,  denying and minimizing the decisive nature of the adoption of the banjo by European Americans and the emergence of a commercial banjo industry involving entertainers,  musical instrument makers, and music vendors,  can cause people not to understand anything about the banjo and its history

IF you find the NY performer calling himself the "original" Picayune Butler in a census or two, and they agree that he was 30, 40 or so -- and not mulatto -- that would be a pretty valid argument.  Arbitrarily ruling out the possibility of his being the guy from 1820s New Orleans, because contemporary Americans were actuarially expected to die at an age younger than 70, is just blowing smoke.

If your use of "roots" [others who deny the African roots and the Afro-Caribbean origin of the banjo] is materially different from my use of "origin," in context -- I stand corrected.  Not that I really think it is; but one person's correct usage is another's niggling distinction.

There is simply no indication that the 1857 through 1861 Butler was the person from New Orleans or that he was African American.  You're pretty ignorant of how the census works and probably havent worked with old census materials.   Can you present any material that shows that this performer was Black?  No one can from 19th century sources including sources that would normally have indicated he was Black, like Converse.  There would be no census indication for the stage name of a person. It is dubious from the New Orleans materials from the 1820s or 1830s that the man's actual leagal name was Picayune.  This was a nickname picked up from playing in the streets for coins "Picayunes." 

Origins means where something originates.  Thus we speak of the African origin of the human species.  Darwin speaks of the Origin of the Species as how humanity originated.  This is not a "niggling" difference.   dont use that word.

Serious people from North America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe spend a decade of intensive work  real work to come to this conclusion.  They did not consider this a minor thing, but a major thing.  

No one has presented any primary evidence that the 1857 through 1861 Butler is Black.  The sources where he was mention are in context ones that would note that he was Black and in contexts where it would have been completely remarkable given the context that he was Black.

Do you thus believe that Jumbo Chaff was an African trained banjoist of "darkey" origin because he said he was and nobody can show a white Gumbo Chaff in the Census????? 

The census does not include the stage pseudonyms of performers.   

If anyone has any 19th century direct evidence that says that any real performer using the name Picayune Butler was African American, they should present it. 

Likewise if anyoen can show through the census whether or not Gumbo Chaff was married or what tribe he was from they can present it as well



razyn said:

IF you find the NY performer calling himself the "original" Picayune Butler in a census or two, and they agree that he was 30, 40 or so -- and not mulatto -- that would be a pretty valid argument.  Arbitrarily ruling out the possibility of his being the guy from 1820s New Orleans, because contemporary Americans were actuarially expected to die at an age younger than 70, is just blowing smoke.

If your use of "roots" [others who deny the African roots and the Afro-Caribbean origin of the banjo] is materially different from my use of "origin," in context -- I stand corrected.  Not that I really think it is; but one person's correct usage is another's niggling distinction.

When  typed "If anyone has any 19th century direct evidence that says that any real performer using the name Picayune Butler was African American, they should present it."  I meant  "If anyone has any 19th century direct evidence that says that any real performer using the name Picayune Butler  in NYC from 1857 to 1861" was African American, they should present it

Only primary 19th century evidence or sourced material counts

Tony Thomas said:

Origins means where something originates.  Thus we speak of the African origin of the human species.  Darwin speaks of the Origin of the Species as how humanity originated.  This is not a "niggling" difference.   dont use that word.

Serious people from North America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe spend a decade of intensive work  real work to come to this conclusion.  They did not consider this a minor thing, but a major thing.  

No one has presented any primary evidence that the 1857 through 1861 Butler is Black.  The sources where he was mention are in context ones that would note that he was Black and in contexts where it would have been completely remarkable given the context that he was Black.

Do you thus believe that Jumbo Chaff was an African trained banjoist of "darkey" origin because he said he was and nobody can show a white Gumbo Chaff in the Census????? 

The census does not include the stage pseudonyms of performers.   

If anyone has any 19th century direct evidence that says that any real performer using the name Picayune Butler was African American, they should present it. 

Likewise if anyoen can show through the census whether or not Gumbo Chaff was married or what tribe he was from they can present it as well



razyn said:

IF you find the NY performer calling himself the "original" Picayune Butler in a census or two, and they agree that he was 30, 40 or so -- and not mulatto -- that would be a pretty valid argument.  Arbitrarily ruling out the possibility of his being the guy from 1820s New Orleans, because contemporary Americans were actuarially expected to die at an age younger than 70, is just blowing smoke.

If your use of "roots" [others who deny the African roots and the Afro-Caribbean origin of the banjo] is materially different from my use of "origin," in context -- I stand corrected.  Not that I really think it is; but one person's correct usage is another's niggling distinction.

Tony you shouldn't start throwing the term 'ignorant' at people here, however indirectly.  You don't really want to become like a 'certain person' we both recall, do you?  ;)

We've seen a few written descriptions of Picayune as being 'colored', 'high mulatto', and a 'yellow man'. Is there also a written account describing him as 'black' or as a 'negro' ?  Is it possible he was light-skinned enough for some folks of the time to not mention his being 'black' in all their references to him when he was older?  Just wondering.

There are a number of different descruiptions of quite different things involved.  The key thing is primary sources.

1)There are a number of descriptions from Newspapers and reminiscences of a Black musician banjo entertainer named Picayune Butler who performed in New Orleans in the 1820s and early 1830s mainly in Newspaper articles and memoirs printed in Newspapers and in the memoirs of the Circus Performer Nichols.  All of these clearly refer to someone of African descent, and many refer to this as being someone from the French West Indies and some state this person learned his craft from Old Corn Meal and more well known and recorded New Orleans street performer

 

There are no substantiated descriptions of anyone named Picayune Butler performing anywhere after the early 1830s, until 1857 when notices for an "original Picayune Butler" performing at a variety of theater venues for minstrel entertainment from 1857 until 1861 in New York.   None of them carry any description.  But I haven't had access to The Clipper or any paper that might hve had a review.

 

There is a letter published in the June 1890 SS Stewart Journal,  recounting a banjo contest in NYC in 1857 claiming that a person called Picayune Butler took part.  I have not seen the original of this letter, only several summaries of this letter and quotations from it.  None of which have any suggestion that the Picayune Butler involved was Black, mulato, yellow or polka-dot.  The closest are as Carl suggests above, that this person utilized the normal stereotypes that white Black face performers used to imitate "planatation darkeys."

Likewise, as Carl summarizes above,  in Converse's memoirs published in the Cadenza, now available in book form BTW and I think still up on Joel Hooks Web page in PDF, Converse speaks of a Picayune Butler who was a mentor of his when he (Converse) entered minstrelsy, who is discussed as Carl mentions in an intimate manner, but Converse never suggests that he is Black the way he indicates who is and who is not Black throughout this memoir and his other writings.

It is also pretty clear to me from a number of things, references to songs, the appearances of songsters, other cstuff like that from the mid 1840s through the 1860s that outside of direct references to any performer, "Picayune Butler" had become a symbol for an imagined or stereotypical Black banjoist, a character more than a reference to a particular person, often as in the SS Stewart allusion referenced above,  a kind of symbol for the old Black four string banjoists who preceded minstrelsy, more than a person.

Again, NOBODY has ever claimed that the Picayune Butler reported in the contest in 858 or announced in notices in 1857-61 in NYC is the same person as the person referenced in New Orleans until after Toll began to say that in his book, a claim he makes with no supporting documentation.   NOBODY in the 19th Century ever claimed that the person reported by Converse or in Morrell's letter was Black.

 

Finally,  references about the New Orleans Butler of the 1820s and 1830s already speak of this person as either a mature adult or an old man.   Thirty years later,  when the "Original Picayune Butler" graces the stage in NYC, when he would have been seen as an exceptionally old man, none of the few reports we have of him mention this or refer to this.

However,  once Toll said this, in our rush to document Black participation in the banjo's life, a series of late 20th Century and 21 Century authors conflated a narrative without any real sources.  Carl and Joel and the late great Lowell Schreyer had the intelligence  and knowledge of the 19th century life and this context to question this.    Since I have begun this question, several people, including one scholar who has reproduced the idea of their being one person in at least two books I am aware of  has written me asking for the documentation that I am assembling since this scholar confesses that they have not one shred of original documentation beyond toll about this.

My view, which needs more substantiation by research is that there was a Butler in New Orleans in 1820-1831, before the age of white Black face minstrelsy whose memory got transformed into a legend and became also a stereotypical character particularly by the time Black face entertainment exploded in the late 1830s and 1840s, sparking songs, songsters, and probably white banjo entertainers inhabiting this character, and a few adopting the name of Picayune Butler over the years.

One them who may have been Morrell or may have been named John Butler was active in minstrelsy in NYC from 1857 until the 61 or 62.  That was probably the person in the contest and the person that Converse mentions.

Again, nobody in the 19th Century or Early 20th century and no evidence from that period points to the later person being the same as the Pic Butler from New Orleans or that person being anything other than a white Black face performer.   In the late 20th century one writer made this claim with NO EVIDENCE to support it and a bunch of other people followed that without any evidence.

But we still need more EVIDENCE to knit the story together.  Only real evidence counts here, not arguments, not charges against great people like Carl, or digressions about things that have nothing to do with this.  A number of us are scouring the libraries, the web sites, and the resources for evidence. 

For example one good thing would be if someone with real knowledge of NYC mid 19th century theatrical venues can contact me.  I would readily show such persons the advertisements for performances by "The Oiriginal Picayune Butler.   

 The task here isn't to argue with this, but to find evidence. 

 

 

Lowell Schreyer provides more clarification.  No one interested in the banjo should be without the great book ghe wrote The Banjo Entertainers: Roots to Ragtime, a Banjo History.  He spent years meticulously researching this book, diving into 19th century newspaper archives, fighting his way through small town and big city birth and death records up and down the Mississippi, even going through grave yards and searching the headstones of banjoists.   He was not only a banjoist and a great one, but a trained journalist and researcher with a professional concern for the facts.  I can think of few who had a more serious respect for the Black origins and history of the banjo and have been of more practical help to this process than Lowell.  He is really missed.

He pretty clearly puts forward the same approach that Carl does and that I have come to share. on pages 57 and 58 of his book.  He notes that "performers other than the original used the name to capitalize on the piopularity" of the song "Picayune Butler Come to Town."   He notes the performer advertisiing himself as Butler in New York in 1860 was reported to be 38, but the song popular by 1845 speaks of an "old" Butler performing in New Orleans 20 years before, Lowell puts this in 1825, but Bob Sayers has found evidence and posted it here that Butler was performing in New Orleans in 1821.  A 38 year old in 1860 would not have been born in 1821. 

  Lowell found the earliest reference to a Butler imitator peforming in a circus in Louisville in 1848.  Circuses have always been completely segregated with no Black entertainers allowed under the big top until the 1970s, even if circuses added "jig shows" side shows involving Black, usually musical entertainers and dancers, as part of the side shows, and often had Black concert bands associated with them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lowell notes that an article in the New York entertainment paper The Clipper identifies "the original Picayune Butler" of that time as one William Coleman.

Lowell makes the same points about Converse that Carl has made here

Again, having had the privilege of meeting Lowell several times, and corresponding with him about banjo history, and witnessing the depth of his research and dedication to getting the facts right on this  and so many other questions,  it would be very hard for me to reject the clear evidence he presents let alone other evidence that supports this story.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

About

John Masciale created this Ning Network.

© 2019   Created by John Masciale.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service