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: 1669

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

yes, well  again this is omething that  brown said several places from the 1860s until the 1870s and has been reproduced ad infinitum in a variety of sources  as well as Nichols direct sources.   There are actually some people who do not live your posts to this group who do not scurry back to your every word.  There is even life and research about the banjo and its antecedants outside of Internet lists

First I agree with what Dnl says but there is more All butlers were Actual.  Everything is real

We have the most information actually about the New Orleans musician who may have performed uyp as far as Cincinatti in the 1820s and 1830s.    This was before the organized minstrelsy was calling itself that, but it was quite relevant to Blackface entertainment.   It is the record of the first banjo entertainer on the stage if the newspaper reports from New Orleans to that effect from 1831 are to be believed and other memoirs.

Exactly "a legend" not instead of an entire person but a legend or a character or a cultural image of a black banjoist that fascinated people existed drawing itself together in the 1820s and 1830s.  Already Nichols claims that he learned Jim Crow from Buitler in 1830 in Cincinatti,

By 1845 we find that there is resonance n this character not only in the song but in other stuff like the songster advertised in a baltimore bookstore in that year,

Then we have the multiple performers that this short search has found adopting that as a stage name or character starting in 1848 and last in 1861 that I have documented.  If we looked harder we might find more.

In this we mind find a reason why when European American banjo entertainers we know about like Sweeney started playing the banjo in the Circus  it gained such resonance.

The image of  a black banjo player that they impersonated  had already gained some influence and resonance by at least one living (or shortly deceased) Black banjoist

Carl who has been reminding folks of this for years now is exactly right.  I hadn't read Converse in a while, but he is extremely race conscious as Carl notes.  He makes a great effort to describe Black players when he confronts them, and the way the banjo was once represented by them, as well as to discuss his views about the role of Black players in various stages of banjo history and his views on the innate abilities of Black players.   He mentions "Pic" Butler several times, but never mentions that he is Black, and never includes him in his general assessments of Black players at the stage where this would be appropriate.   He does refer as Carl notes to how this Pic Butler followed standard white minstrel conventions to "imitate" a "plantation darkey."  

 

It should be notes that reports on the original Butler suggest that Butler was not a southern planation slave, but a free person of African descent from Martinique or perhaps Guadaloup or Haiti, who is referred to by those actually reporting his existence as being "French."  Converse's depictions of various banjoists including this Butler are quite particular.  He notes where banjoists are Canadian or Dutch or of different backgrounds, but he says nothing about the Frenchness of the Pic Butler he writes of.

The Frenchness of Butler is something of a marker of the difference between the Butler the actual New Orleans banjoist and the banjoists who following the popularity of the song Picayune Butler and apparently the creation of a cultural image of a Black banjoist attached to that name beyond the song which resulted in a series of circus and stage performers adopting the stage name of Picayune Butler either for an individual song or act or a career.  

           There appear to be several banjoists we can definitely pin as working under this moniker.  The one Lowell found in Cincinatti in 1848 who may have been Nichols,  the two different banjoists probably John M  Butler and William Coleman, who seem to be operating under that stage name between 1858 and 1861 in New York.

           H. T. Brown, a theatrical writer who later affixed Colonel to his name, clearly was familiar with the identity of John Butler and Coleman and a variety of other minstrel entertainers and banjoists but he clearly did not consider them to be the original Black banjoist.   To section about Bulter most often quoted from his "Origins of Minstrelsy" quoted from a publication in 1874 is actually a rehash of at least one article he published in 1860 or thereabout when ads in New York papers he read advertised the white minstrel entertainers posing as Butler.   If either one were Butler,  Brown would have noted this in his article on Origins, or in the various different delineations of minstrel entertainers that include them.

              Unfortunately,  we still have scant information on the New Orleans Butler.  There is one New Orleans reference found by Henry A. Kmen in his  Music in New Orleans that refers to a newspaper report of "old Butler" being a better banjoist than a white Blackface entertainer.   There are George Nichols later day remembrance of Butler having performed from New Orleans to Cincinnati and Nichols claim he learned "Jim Crow" from Butler and/or "Old Corn Meal."  Nichols claim is supported by two show notices for New Orleans,  one from March 1831 and the other from May 1831 which advertise Nichols performing "Jim Crow"  in circuses in New Orleans.   We also have several memoirs from later on of people who remember the original Butler from the 1820s in New Orleans.

           Most of the other reports about Butler in New Orleans that I have seen including stuff printed in late 19th century and early 20th Century books up to today seem to be cribbed from Brown's account, although one or two seem to be cribbed from Nichols.

            This is all one story both a bout Black banjo entertainers and their links both physically and in cultural imagination with the first white banjo entertainers, as well with an image of a Black banjo entertainer in general cultural imagination.

               The interesting thing is that all of this seems to STOP with the Civil War.

One might also ask why we have a Black History month or why we celebrate Jackie Robinson.  The obvious answer would seem to be that we are (re)discovering a history lost to systematic discrimination.

Dan'l said:

Why is it so important that a black banjo player be shown as the origin of the Picayune Butler moniker? A player's skill and reputation ("content of their character") is a priority over what their racial identity may be. It seems we are talking about a series of very fine players whose reputation is carried in their Minstrel tradition, not their racial tradition.  This is not African music but American music infused from several racial traditions besides Africa. Is it supposed to be significant or a surprise that a black player could be so skilled as to inspire imitators?

First of all nothing should matter except whatever anyone whats to matter. to Dan'l the nicities and complexities of this stuff don't matter and he has his right to feel that way. 

My real interest is in history and how history and society work, and how music history works in the banjo, so things that should not matter to people who are not so interested matter to me.  So all this matters more than I thought it would,.

I got back into folk music by and large and banjo stuff really for the first time about 1999.  I had questions about banjo history and Black banjo history that I felt whatever books about this stuff did not answer or were clearly wrong about.  I actually asked Henry Louis Gates Jr, and Reverent Cornell West which scholars of Black music were doing research about this so I could get their stuff, found there were none, and got Gates to give me a cover letter to send out to the majors in this field asking them to do stuff about this, and got went back to playing banjos.   None of them have done anything about that since then.

A bunch of us decided in the mid 2000s that instead of complaining about why academics don't do research on banjo history to do research on banjo history that was documented, that used the techniques and approaches people who study music, music history, and history in general have developed.   As we keep doing this we keep finding out stuff we didn't know about the world, both about what happened in history, and also about how the ideas of contemporary banjo enthusiasts, revivalist, folkies, etc warp the contemporary banjo world.

 When I started to write this thing despite the fact that I have an autographed copy of Lowell's book on my desk and even before he finished the book Lowell sent me drafts of sections he thought relevant like the one on Butler,  I was going to write up the litany I had read in a couple books, that there was one guy named Pic Butler who was from New Orleans and was still playing in NYC in the late 1850s and starred in minstrelsy.    It is kind of the reverse, the rush to emphasize African American heritage in the banjo got us to ignore obvious facts.

But more than that so much banjo history and popular culture history remains unexplored, and much that passes for such is unsupported and researched.  You know, it isn't that the 19th century banjo entertainers and the banjo world of that time had no history, hid their history, lied about, or did anything but be pretty loud about what they did in newspapers, show billings, memories, and books across the 19th and early 20th century.   It is that people who passed them selves off as researchers and historians don't care to look at the long record these people left us.  Shame on us.

Secondly, this shows us a lot about how 19th century culture worked in regard to musical and cultural imagery.   I spent Saturday morning going through the New Orleans Bee, a newspaper, for March and May 1831 and a couple other New Orleans papers looking for information about Nichols' appearances there.  The advertisement for the circus shows Nichols did announcing his performance and announcing him performing Jim Crow are surrounded by advertisements either for selling slaves or to catch runaway slaves. 

 

This is a real context of Americans.  I grew up knowing a grandfather and a grand uncle and a grand aunt on one side of the family and a great grandmother on the other side all of whose parents had been slaves.  These were the peple IKNEW  let alone other relatives of the same generations whom I never met.  None of this is abstract.  All of them living in the time of the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court that said Black people were NOT Americans no matter if they were free or enslaved.

Quite recently, it was strongly asserted that this Black history had little or nothing to do with the banjo.  I know people, white people, who received death threats for asserting that the banjo had African roots and Afro-Caribbean and African American origins.  This collapsing of everything into being "American" insults the reality that all of the people lived in. 

It should also be noted that the first Picayune Butler was not "an American" by born in the United States standards, but probably from Martinique, one of the oldest places in banjo history.  If our first banjo sighting comes from Jamaica in the 1680s, the second one comes from Martinique in the 1690s.   This is decades before any banjo playing went on in North America.   So it is interesting to see a continuation of interaction between the banjo in the area of its origin, the Caribbean, and North America, something that defeats the rather narrow "banjo is American."

But the picture I get about the Pic Butler thing is not so much that this guy was so good that he inspired other players, but that the image of an African American banjoist that got developed around Butler became a resonant and popular cultural image quite apart from a real person, an image that seemed resonant and popular in forms of entertainment beyond banjo playing.   Why was this and how did this happen?

It wasn't just banjo entertaining, but I get the picture of Picayune Butler products being sold due to the popularity of not only the song but the images. 

 

Minstrel music as such is a combination of European and African American music, but it is quite different musically, very, very European sounding, compared to African American music in general, Black banjo playing in particular.  Of course, there are big traces, but it sounds nothing like say Dink Roberts or Rufus Kasey.   This is a musical fact.  Go to Bob Winans web site where he discusses this in erudite musical language that  I cannot. 

 

My first reactions to hearing the minstrel recreation albums about 12 years ago was how European sounding it was, European even in contrast to say old time banjo music or modern country western, let alone Black American music.  I remember writing Clarke and talking to Clarke Beuhling about that then.  It was still quite interesting to see it as an early stage of evolution of American music.  Moreover, just yesterday listening to one of Clarke's early CDs, to see the great difference in the way he sings Juba or other songs of incontestable African American origin and the way a Black traditional banjoist or probably anyone into singing from an African American tradition would sing and to understand evolutions involved.

But getting back to Butler, if we think about the rise and spread of minstrelsy--the subject of this operation--we think about Sweeney, Emmett, Whitlock starting out as banjo entertainers and getting a wide response internationally.  What the Butler stuff indicates is that not just off on the side among themselves Black folk banjoists below the horizon of popular music existing,  there were at least images of and popularity in the cultural mind of Black banjoists, some of them perhaps stage entertainers, who were known before this happened, and how that captured the cultural imagination, and perhaps provided the idea  that spurred on people like Sweeney to become banjo entertainers.

We often tell the story of minstrelsy with talk about Rice and non banjoists popularizing things first and then along came Sweeney.  But just by this story,  we have it that Black banjo entertainers in New Orleans were quite popular in the 1820s and thirties,  Nichiols learned the song from them and was performing it as early as 1831 (he says earlier) and there is a strong circum and Cincinatti connection between Rice and Nichols and  .  .  .

Of course, to some people this should not matter.  I here to say that what matters to me doesn't need to matter to anybody else, or at least to people who are not interested in history or do not have a particular interest in Black history or whatever.

But some of us are interested in this.  It helps me figure out the world I live in to study the world that created.  That's me and  a bunch of other people I know.

 

 

The question is what are the facts and how do they fit into the real world.

The original Picayune Butler wasn't an American doubly but the standards of the day and by his origin in Martinique.  All the actual descriptions of him point to him as the French guy.

But the question is what do the actual facts lead to.

Again my search for the real Butler or say into Nichols runs into the advertising page of the New Orleans Bee in 1831 where the circus notice is between notices to catch runaways and to sell other people

I've been following this discussion for the past few days and am having a hard time keeping quiet.  It seems to me that Tony's quest to dig up as much as possible about the "original" Picayune Butler, preferably from primary sources, is the real issue here.  Identifying and sorting out all of the later "Picayune Butlers" seems secondary.  

My own understanding of antebellum minstrelsy is that there weren't a lot of black artists performing in predominantly white theaters, the known exceptions being Henry Lane (Juba) and Thomas Dilward ("Japanese Tommy");  (of course, there were many black musicians playing in their own communities.)  By the end of the Civil War, black troupes like Sam Hague's Georgia Minstrels came into being and were popular through the 1870s.  Black banjoists like the Bohee Brothers found fame at a slightly later date.  

I did a lot of newspaper searching this weekend, poring through literally hundreds of pages dating before 1840.  And while I came up with almost nothing about Butler, I did find a number of very interesting descriptions of unnamed black banjo players in places like Richmond, Natchez, and Boston.  I also came up with the names of one or two white banjoists who seem to precede J.W. Sweeney by a year or two.  

Back to Picayune Butler then:  To better understand the milieu in which he lived, I would strongly recommending Tulane geographer Richard Campanella's book, Lincoln in New Orleans:  The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and their Place in History.   Campanella's speaks at length about the communities of enslaved and free black people in New Orleans, as well as the Creole community of which Butler may have been a part.  A long appendix in the book, "New Orleans in the 1820s-1830s" is like a book-in-a-book and is heavily footnoted, taking you to the original sources.   

One of the best sources on the connection between early minstrelsy and the circus is John H. Glenroy's personal memoir entitled Ins and Outs of Circus Life (1835-1877).   You can find the text on the Circus History website.  Glenroy identifies by name most of the early performers with whom he was associated, included J.W. Sweeney.  Alas, though, all of his banjo compatriots appear to be white.  

  

Dan'l,  I was wrong.  I came up with ads for "Mr. Leicester" that seemed to precede ads for Sweeney.  However, I went back to Lowell Schreyer's book last night and his chronology disputes this.  There may be more, though.  I downloaded a bunch of relevant-seeming newspapers and will have to go through them when I can find the time.  Still, I found some interesting early descriptions of black banjo playing in the antebellum period.

Dan'l said:

Bob said "I also came up with the names of one or two white banjoists who seem to precede J.W. Sweeney by a year or two..."

     In what respect do you mean they preceded Sweeney... as professional white banjo players, as players who had adopted slave player technique, or as players who had a popular reputation in the Country?  Are they players listed in later Minstrel accounts under other stage names you've seen?

Dear Bob: 

Great work as in your original post on this issue.   I meant to go through a couple newspaper sites today too  I found a couple things last night.     I tis really important to post stuff here or somewhere, because the whole problem of all of this is that we have enthusiasts like us who know this that and the other thing, but none of it gets formally recorded or shared.  Thus it never makes it way out into publications ad becomes part of the common pool of knowledge, and  cannot be shared proudly with everyone interested, not just in playing but understanding the history.

The capacity we now have just with the stuff available on the Internet generally, let alone some of the academic databases some of us have access too, makes it quite possible for us to find things it would have taken people a lot of work to find 20 years ago. 

  If you can send me or post any of the materials about the Black banjoists you found, it would be very very useful.   I will get Campenella's book.   I have downloaded Glenroy and much other stuff from the circus web site which is extremely rich in material both on direct links to banjo playing and minstrelsy and to the context of popular entertainment in the last century.   Most of those who later became the first generation offering minstrel packages were circus entertainers like Sweeney and Emmet and even after "the institution" began,  many went back and forth.

Yes,  I do not know as much about this period as you all do, but I do know that Black stage entertainers of any kind outside of a few segregated attempts by Blacks to perform for other blacks in NYC and Philadelphia were quite rare until AFTER the Civil War and were unknown in either circuses of the popular theaters where minstrels performed.

Sweeney seems to be the first major popular entertainment white or other banjoist that we know about and seems to have made a splash,    I think the way that Sweeney made a splash that started some continuity is probably what crystallized the idea.   But I have no doubt there were other banjo entertainers before him, 

whatever documentation you can for them PLEASE POST THEM HERE OR SOMEWHERE LIKE THIS.     

The more people know about thi, the more minds working o it, the more ideas and the more we will know.

Again,  I can understand the folks who are just concerned with playing tunes, and dont want to be bothered with other stuff and I do not believe in trying to tell people what they should thnk is important

Yeah,  people have found information suggesting there were white banjoist in the US before Sweeney's recorded performances in VA and then as part of his professional musicianship.   However, none of them seem to be significantly earlier than Sweeney's testimony of when he began playing banjo before becoming a public performer, although several are about the same time. None of them seem to have connected with encouraging entertainment or show business or the stream of success involved.  

As some here know I recently wrote a piece on the NIng Classic Banjo site refuting the idea that Sweeney invented the banjo etc.   However,  in researching that again, and going through stuff, if you read the reaction that people who saw Sweeney perform on the banjo,  it cannot be denied that he was such a thrilling and enjoyable performer and seemed to have such a strong respect for the music he played as music, not performing or ridiculing Black people or women or whatever,  that this aspect of his playing was significant. 

But the Picayune Butler story we have unEarthed or clarified here gives a little of the back story to the response that sweeney made.   It suggests that there were Black entertainers like butler and Old Cornmeal operating before Sweeney who captured much of the public imagnation and got a response in popular culture that may have paved the way for Sweeney and his peers.

It also may have been the reason for the identification of banjo entertaining with blackface performance and black impersonation when you think of it.

The idea of multiple Butlers seems to be something not odd or unexpected, much more  to be expected than the fantastic story of one Black entertainer who performs from the 1820s to 1861 and has multiple reports in books and newspapers and advertisements, but after 1830 or so, there is no mention of his Blackness.  Performers announcing they were all sorts of people who were well known and white was a pretty standard part of the show business world of early 19th Century America.

What I am finding out is that the tune and the idea of Picayune Butler and the expression "Picayune Butler's Coming to Town" was so widespread in the general culture that anyone named Butler was might get tagged with that nickname.  


Bob Sayers said:

Dan'l,  I was wrong.  I came up with ads for "Mr. Leicester" that seemed to precede ads for Sweeney.  However, I went back to Lowell Schreyer's book last night and his chronology disputes this.  There may be more, though.  I downloaded a bunch of relevant-seeming newspapers and will have to go through them when I can find the time.  Still, I found some interesting early descriptions of black banjo playing in the antebellum period.

Dan'l said:

Bob said "I also came up with the names of one or two white banjoists who seem to precede J.W. Sweeney by a year or two..."

     In what respect do you mean they preceded Sweeney... as professional white banjo players, as players who had adopted slave player technique, or as players who had a popular reputation in the Country?  Are they players listed in later Minstrel accounts under other stage names you've seen?

When  I wrote this I hadnt really looked at the sources.  We don't have any sure recollections of Butler performing on the stage in New Orleans, although the more I look there are more and more references to him as a street player and someone that entertainers like Nichols learned from and someone who was known to perform for Blacks and others,

Apart from Nichols and one reference to "old Butler" and perhaps Brown's memoir, what we have is a lot of memoir from long long after the fact from the civil war period and even the late 19th century.   We have to untangle how much that stuff is false memories that are fueled by the legend of the Picayune Butler that grew up around the song and the minstrel impersonators of Butler, and how much of it is accurate truth. 

My strong suspicion is that it is qutie possible that much of the memories in New Orleans of Old Corn Meal, a far more documented Black banjo entertainer who may have actually performed on the stage gets mixed up in retrospect as memory of Picayune Butler decades after he has become a trademark symbol and legend for a Black banjo player, popularly reproduced by white minstrel entertainers takng up his name, and by a host of other musical products like the "Picayune Butler Songster" sold in a Baltimore bookstore in 1845.

Tony Thomas said:

The New Orleans stuff is actually fairly well done.  We have not only memoirs of him playing in New Orleans after the fact as several people here have located and posted but Newspaper articles from New Orleans in the 1830s reporting on stage appearances by Picayune Butler that Shlomo found in 2009.   I haven't looked much about that yet really,

 

New Orleans does have lost of records.  Lowell was able to find birth and even death records for Ferguson the banjoist who taught Emmett there.  Even records of enslaved Black people in Louisiana are quite extensive and have been an important foundation for much work we do about Slavery.

However,  I would think finding Butler this way would probably not be very probable.  All reports indicate Picayune Butler was not born in Louisiana but in either Martinique or Guadaloupe.  It would be quite surprising if Butler were his real family name s opposed to a stage name, since that is hardly a Martinican name.     

 

There isn't much real mystery about the New Orleans musician, what needed cleaning up or exploration is the 20th and 21st Century mistake banjo historians and enthusiasts made of conflating the early Butler with later banjo entertainers inhabiting the character.   That such a character grew up by the 1840s and had such popularity and later that this name got attached to a significant Union general and that Lincoln's affection for the Pic Butler song became an issue in the 1864 election is also part of the storytoo


 
OK-4 said:

You might consult a genealogist, since they have experience tracking down records of ordinary folks (the first thing they will tell you is to look at census records, but they may have other ideas). There are various historical societies in Louisiana that might have friendly archivists. There may be records of Mr. Butler in French, not just English.

Hi Tony, I'm glad that you found something of use.  I'm still downloading newspaper files in three areas:  (1) any references to banjo music (especially African American banjo playing) before 1840; (2) references to banjoists on the cusp of minstrelsy, circa 1837-1842; and (3) store ads for sellers of banjos from about 1840-1860.   Most of what I've found so far is pretty mundane stuff, although taken together paints a pretty interesting picture of the early banjo playing community.  But there have been some real nuggets, some of which I'll try to post over time.   I'm including two here.

So far I've unearthed three different "runaway banjoist" ads.  The one that I've posted here about a fugitive slave in Maryland in 1790 gave me the chills when I got to the name.   It may be too early for our guy, but then who knows?

The second one is about a stupid politician (possibly Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke) who mistook a band of passing musicians in Washington for insurrectionists.   I laughed when I read it.   

Anyway, I hope you find these of interest.



Tony Thomas said:

Dear Bob: 

Great work as in your original post on this issue.   I meant to go through a couple newspaper sites today too  I found a couple things last night.     I tis really important to post stuff here or somewhere, because the whole problem of all of this is that we have enthusiasts like us who know this that and the other thing, but none of it gets formally recorded or shared.  Thus it never makes it way out into publications ad becomes part of the common pool of knowledge, and  cannot be shared proudly with everyone interested, not just in playing but understanding the history.

The capacity we now have just with the stuff available on the Internet generally, let alone some of the academic databases some of us have access too, makes it quite possible for us to find things it would have taken people a lot of work to find 20 years ago. 

  If you can send me or post any of the materials about the Black banjoists you found, it would be very very useful.   I will get Campenella's book.   I have downloaded Glenroy and much other stuff from the circus web site which is extremely rich in material both on direct links to banjo playing and minstrelsy and to the context of popular entertainment in the last century.   Most of those who later became the first generation offering minstrel packages were circus entertainers like Sweeney and Emmet and even after "the institution" began,  many went back and forth.

Yes,  I do not know as much about this period as you all do, but I do know that Black stage entertainers of any kind outside of a few segregated attempts by Blacks to perform for other blacks in NYC and Philadelphia were quite rare until AFTER the Civil War and were unknown in either circuses of the popular theaters where minstrels performed.

Sweeney seems to be the first major popular entertainment white or other banjoist that we know about and seems to have made a splash,    I think the way that Sweeney made a splash that started some continuity is probably what crystallized the idea.   But I have no doubt there were other banjo entertainers before him, 

whatever documentation you can for them PLEASE POST THEM HERE OR SOMEWHERE LIKE THIS.     

The more people know about thi, the more minds working o it, the more ideas and the more we will know.

Again,  I can understand the folks who are just concerned with playing tunes, and dont want to be bothered with other stuff and I do not believe in trying to tell people what they should thnk is important

Attachments:

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