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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

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I wish you success in your research, Tony.  I have broached the subject here before, and not really gotten anywhere.

What do we know about John "Picayune" Butler?  A Google search will yield a number of short passages about him in books about pre-minstrelsy.  He is referred to a "black" and "French" which suggests that he was a Creole.  He is said to have played banjo in New Orleans from the 1820's onward.  Some accounts say he was a big influence on the succeeding generation of banjoists, which if true puts him up with Sweeney in banjo history importance.  He is sometimes credited with the writing the song "Picayune Butler's Come to Town," sometimes just credited with being the inspiration for it.  He is said to have played in a banjo contest in NYC in 1858, which he would have won if he hadn't been drunk and broke a string.  Most accounts say he died in New York in 1864.

I have to wonder, where does this information on Picayune Butler come from?  I have limited research tools, but I have never seen a primary source document on Picayune Butler, outside of an account of the banjo contest and the Converse Banjo Reminiscences Series from 1901-02.  For a musician active from circa 1820-1860 there isn't much available that I can find.  All the Civil War mentions of Picayune Butler are messed up because General Benjamin Butler became known as "Picayune" Butler during his tenure in New Orleans.

The Converse Reminiscences series, published in The Cadenza from 1901-02, paint a very intimate portrait of a John "Picayune" Butler.  Butler was the first truly professional banjoist Converse heard and he idolized him, listening to his "brilliant" tone outside the hotel where his troupe was staying, and soon meeting him and playing with him (Converse put his music onto paper, and although Butler didn't read music, he later credited Converse with inspiring him to learn and said it "was like the bars came down" and I was free).

Lowell Schreyer in his book "The Banjo Entertainers" points out that there are some problems with the John Picayune Butler Converse writes of being an older, "colored" man.  First of all, Converse, like everyone else of his time, when referring to black person, will say so, i.e. "John Smith, colored" or "John Smith, negro."  The first banjoist Converse ever heard was, in his own words, "a bright mulatto."  When Converse discusses Sam Pride, or E. M. Hall, or Horace Weston, he always tells you that they are black.  But he never says the banjoist John Picayune Butler he knew was black.

He gives a detailed discription of his stage attire and appearance, Butler being short, stocky and affecting the roughly dressed "plantation darky."  No mention of his actually being black.  He says Butler used the thimble.  If he is the New Orleans Butler, he is very progressive because thimble use came along later than the 1820's.  And the hotel where Butler stays has apparently no racial bias as would be expected of those days.

Also the account of the 1858 Tournament gives no mention of Butler being black.  Surely a black man pushing 50 would merit some comment at that time.  The banjo and minstrelsy itself was still a young mans game.

Can you imagine a period account of Will Henry "Juba" Lane that would fail to mention that he was a black man?

Schreyer opines that the John Butler Converse knew was a white man who used Picayune Butler as his stage name.

Of course he may be completely wrong.  It is really hard to find any mention of even a white banjoist Picayune Butler, outside of the above sources.

I hope Tony is able to shed some light on this subject.

Wasn't it member Dean Havron here who sang that terrific version of "Picayune Butler's Come To Town" at the AEBG last weekend?  I think that is his name, sorry...but he sang it wonderfully I thought, and I told him so.

Maybe there's a video....Tim?

Tony:  I did a quick search on the Genealogy Bank website (a subscription website) for "Picayune Butler" and "Picayune Butler banjo" and came up with a couple hundred hits.  Most of the early ones (1840s) refer to the song "Picayune Butler."  Several ads appear in the late 1850s for a white minstrel performer name Picayune Butler in the New York newspapers.  After that, the name seems to be mostly closely associated with General Ben. Butler.   

The closest I came (in this admittedly cursory search) to a black banjo player named Picayune Butler is an article entitled "Personal Recollections" by Robert Buchanan in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette for 29 May 1869.  In it, Buchanan writes in part:

"When I first visited that city [New Orleans], in 1821, there was a celebrated banjo player, a yellow man, know as 'Picayune Butler,' a great artist in his way.  He had escaped from the 'good old North State,' as its citizens affectionately term North Carolina, and, according to one of his songs, had no favorable opinion of the people--one verse out of a dozen may suffice:  

Dey had a little cow, and dey milk her in a gourd,

Dey put it in a corner and dey kiver it wid a board,

And dat is de way dey used to do,

When I lived along wid de Carolina crew.

For twenty or thirty years this man was one of the notabilities of the city, especially with the flatboatmen.  He used to parade up and down the levee, playing and singing,

Picayune Butler's coming, coming,

Picayune Butler's coming to town.

And then the appeal to his audience, 'Picayune, mass, picayune,' always brought the change.  Some of his songs and tunes were adopted by the negro minstrels and are well known."

Yes, but I am waiting for individual approval.
 
Strumelia said:

Wasn't it member Dean Havron here who sang that terrific version of "Picayune Butler's Come To Town" at the AEBG last weekend?  I think that is his name, sorry...but he sang it wonderfully I thought, and I told him so.

Maybe there's a video....Tim?

I have no special knowledge of this period with most of my research work being done on 20th and very late 19th century banjoits,.  But even in regard to living people, "facts" accepted even by those who claim to be scholars can be bundles of assumptions passed on from one to another without affirmed bases in fact, and as age creeps along we can believe things careful memory would reject. 

The thing to do will be to try to get as close to primary sources from the period to determine what is  what.  To me the questions that Carl--a person whose seriousness and objectivity I have admired for a while--and others like Joel Hooks have raised about Butler seem worthy or consideration and examination,

 

The key thing seems to be to 1)examine the trail of evidence that supports existing claims 2)find cross references that confirm or deny those claims 3)be open to any possibility 4) be open to the fact we will never know.

Speculations without evidence are interesting, but not very important.   I will try to share any meaningful evidence I find about this here.  If anyone wants to become part of an organized effort to figure this out contact me offlist as several people have.

   I will be reaching out to some historians, particularly people familiar with NY and New Orleans, to try to figure this out.  My experience of getting into banjo history is that although we complain about scholars of music and music history neglecting the banjo, often such scholars know how to find things out.

Bob:  Can yu send me a scan of that paper?  If that resource has no download,  feature you can just print the screen.  This jibs with some reports on an 1831 performance that Butler made on the stage in new orleans that Shlomo Petscoe found in 2009.     Methinks there was this one guy in New Orleans in the 1820s who became morphed into a kind of character and then several other white banjoists who inhabited him as a character over the years ending with probablly Morrel imitating him in NYC 1857-61.  If you look at the notices for that pic butler you will see him advertised in every one as "the original picayune butler" as if there were others.   But we are still finding out.    Anyone with hard evidence from the period like this can contact me here or at my email



Bob Sayers said:

Attachments:

Hi Tony,  I've attached the recollection from the Cincinnati Daily Gazette (29 May 1869).   Obviously, it would be better if this story was in an 1820s New Orleans newspaper.   But it sounds like it may have some veracity.   Research in 19th-century newspapers is just plain fun and the sources are expanding rapidly.  I would suggest that you sign up to Genealogy Bank for a short period (a week or a month) and sift through the 200 or so Civil War period and earlier hits for "Picayune Butler" and "Picayune Butler banjo."  Most of what you'll find will be off-target.   But it will give you a good sense of how "Picayune Butler" came into the public discourse.   And you may find some really exciting discoveries.   Happy hunting!   Bob 

I was just poking around on the Hamilton Library website (I posted about it in another forum), and there was a treatise on banjo from S.S. Stewart I was paging through, and figured I'd just search for Butler in it. There's only one small mention, don't know if it's of any use to you.

http://elib.hamilton.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=%2Fspe-ban&...



Bob Sayers said:

Hi Tony,  I've attached the recollection from the Cincinnati Daily Gazette (29 May 1869).   Obviously, it would be better if this story was in an 1820s New Orleans newspaper.   But it sounds like it may have some veracity.   Research in 19th-century newspapers is just plain fun and the sources are expanding rapidly.  I would suggest that you sign up to Genealogy Bank for a short period (a week or a month) and sift through the 200 or so Civil War period and earlier hits for "Picayune Butler" and "Picayune Butler banjo."  Most of what you'll find will be off-target.   But it will give you a good sense of how "Picayune Butler" came into the public discourse.   And you may find some really exciting discoveries.   Happy hunting!   Bob 

I  DEFINITELY DO HAVE 1830 AND 1831 new Orleans newspaper notices about  Picayune Butler that  Shlomo Petscoe found in 2009.  I belong to Ancestry.com which has a single list of  newspaper resources, though not that one.  I also have access to an academic database that includes a large number of US newspapers and a special subsection of Black newspapers, but unfortunately not this Cinci paper and not the relevant New Orleans papers.

Yes, I have a friend who has a step daughter who went to Hamilton and took a music history course, I thanked him profusely and told him had I known I might have given him a few bucks to support her tuition since that place is wonderful for all the stuff theyhave there.  I went there are usual but didn't look at Stewart's stuff.   Isnt this dissertation on the banjo up in pdf on one fo the classic banjo sites or wheever?  

Two thinks are supremely useful about this little piece.

 

First there is an alternate spelling to the name which is probably pretty important for a searcher like me looking through 19th century newspapers and legal records and theater notices.  As someone who was a scholar of 19th century popular literature before banjos, I can tell you that even common words had many spellings,.

 

The second thing here is what I find in the other stuff I have found.   Very quickly,  especially by the 1840s when white black face banjo entertainment had taken off,   Picayune Butler had become a symbolic character symbolizing the original Black banjo players, a kind of mythic character like Jim Crow whose mention gets mixed up with the "real" Butler who played in New Orleans in the 1820s and 1830s.
 
Kevin Taylor said:

I was just poking around on the Hamilton Library website (I posted about it in another forum), and there was a treatise on banjo from S.S. Stewart I was paging through, and figured I'd just search for Butler in it. There's only one small mention, don't know if it's of any use to you.

http://elib.hamilton.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=%2Fspe-ban&...

Just a comment on where things stand today (July 3).  First thanks to all of you for your information and assistance and concern.  A number of folks here got to me off list.    I have found besides the memoir mentioned  here of a New Orleans Butler memntioned here, several New Orleans newspaper articles about a well-known Black banjoist in New Orleans in the 1820s and 1830s called Picayune Butler. 

I have found  chain of show notices in NYC that begin in 1857 and end in 1861 for someone billing himself as "the Original Picayune Butler" in minstrel-like venues in New York.  Anyone familiar with New York City venues of that time, which I am not, should write me offlist at Blackbanjotony@hotmail.com.   I am can show you those notices we can get a better judgment on them.

I have found a series of mentions in 19th Century Newspapers from New York, Charleston SC,  and Baltimore  that speak of the songs about Butler as being among the most popular and widely known songs offered by minstrel and other enterainers and notice of the sale of a 1845 P Butler songster from a Baltimore bookstore,

My own impression favors the views expressed by Carl and Joel, although the late great Lowell Schreyer was the first to suggest this.

1. Perhaps the first banjo entertainer on the stage who was widely known was a Black musician in New Orleans as Picayune Butler who was well known in the City in the 1820s and 1830s and who may have toured the usual routes of musical entertainers up the Mississippi River and Ohio River.

2.  By the 1840s the explosion of minstrel and related banjo entertaining and the historic reputation of this Butler had extended the name P Butler from the name of an individual outstanding performer to a legendary symbol for black banjo players or a stereotypical mythical banjo player and perhaps even a character represented in stage and song,  a character inhabited by a number of banjo entertainers on the stage.  Indeed the evidence that during the Civil War Benjamin Butler was given this nickname suggests how wide spread the idea of Pic Butler and his songs and their identification with African Americans was in the culture.  Confederates and slavery sympathizers such as the McClellan campaign of 1864  use Lincoln's preference for the P Butler songs as a way of negatively identifying him with Blacks

3.   One person who latched onto this character as Picayune Butler performed as the "original Picayune Butler" in the New York City area from 1857 to 1861 or 2.   This person performed in a number of venues that and circumstances that would make it seem dubious that this person was AFrican American, but was a white minstrel entertainer in Black face.

4.   It is quite possible that this white minstrel banjo entertainer was the person described as Picayune Butler in the report on a banjo contest in NYC that is referred to  in  SS Stewart Banjo and Guitar Journal in June July 1890 in a letter from Charles Morrell.    Moreover,  the late Lowell Schreyer whose objectivity, dedication, and concern for THE FACTS AND NOTHING BUT THE FACTS was outstanding, suspected that Morrell himself was this Picayune Butler.

5.    It is quite probable that the person referred to as P Butler in Converse's Cadenza memoirs is also this white minstrel entertainer, whether Morrell or not

6.    The argument Carl A and other have raised that it is dubious that a person who was old enough to be a dynamic well known banjo entertainer in New Orleans in 1821 could have been a similarly dynamic banjoist in New York in 1857 or 1861 is a very valid argument.  In graduate school one of of my foci was 19th century popular literature--stuff people really read as opposed to the classics.  One of the things we got and several of us researched was the very bad health situation of even the most privileged people in that period.  People in their 40s were considered to be old, and those who lasted longer often had many afflictions and infirmaties.   A butler who was at least 20 in 1821 would have been 56 in 1857.  

 

However,. this remains a conjecture.   We need to find more evidence,  more facts.   Anyone with ideas about finding this evidence

 

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