Minstrel Banjo

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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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"A 38 year old in 1860 would not have been born in 1821."

Well, right.  As I said in the post beginning IF...  Furthermore, a 38 year old white guy also doesn't have much to do with the contract you have.  You could blow off most of that NY stuff with a footnote citing Schreyer's great book, one of many that I don't have.  (But I do have a good many, some few of which are my author's copies.)

More to your point would be the Ohio valley sources, one of which I dimly recall as the serialized reminiscences of an old circus guy -- seems to me he went by "Col." so he may have been a promoter, rather than a performer.  Possibly a clown, or a magician.  Has anybody cited that, here?

I think your entry should emphasize the African-American person who created the character, and whether he died on the Ohio or elsewhere, it might be possible to identify him correctly.  Maybe Schreyer already did, I don't know; I'm just trying to point you in the direction of whatever you don't have yet.  You did ask.

Well, if you do not have Lowell's book, you are not really qualified to discuss this type of thing.   That book belongs in every home.  The dedication and seriousness that he approached this stuff is still overwhelmingly inspiring to me,  and we all try to emulate it.   Hard evidence is what we need, not prejudices or unfounded rhetoric.

What I did ask for is hard documented evidence, particularly 19th century direct evidence as well as anyone familiar with 19th century NYC venues for banjo entertainment.   The source for the circus stuff is the memoirs of one Nichols which have been posted on this list previously.   The main source referring to this seems to be an interview with a surviving Circus entertainer in a NY paper, I think the Tribune in the early 1900s (don't have that clipping with me).

People who create messes should clean them up.  20th and 21st century banjo enthusiasts and historians created a mess claiming Picayune Butler survived into the 1850s and 1860s and was a banjo entertainer in NYC, a position you rather rudely put forward with absolute lack of any knowledge about the question.

So part of the story is not just whatever facts we have about the original Butler, but how the legend continued and was reflectged in these minstrel entertainers and clarifying the errors of other accounts.   

Nichols memoir should be subjected to the same critical procedures we used for the NY "Picayune Butler."  

 

But I want to underline this stuff is about hard facts and evidence, not conjectures, insults, and prejudices against one group or another.  We owe the people who made the history the respect to learn about and honor what they did by listening to it, not creating fictions.

Once again my hat is off to Carl Anderton who first brought this to our attention and whose knowledge and suggestions parallel Lowells,  now to focus on the original person.

 

Again, I am interested anyone with hard evidence about the original butler as well as theatrical venues in NYC, not general blather

Tony, my friend.  I invite you to consider the benefits of addressing others with grace.

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.

OK, the guy I was trying to remember was Col. Thomas Allston Brown (b. 1836), and while some of his reminiscences about stage people were indeed published as late as 1913, they had also been published as early as 1872.  And he had been collecting them (by personal interviews etc.) since 1858.

My April, 2007 thread about it on the old Tom Briggs Minstrel Banjo forum is still visible: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/Tom-Briggs/RS3JX_XVwXQ

In my opinion Brown himself is a 19th century source, he was referring at least in part to the actual African-American banjoist in question, and his relatively brief note about Butler is not gleaned from the 20th century Converse material.  My mention of it was therefore an entirely appropriate response to the question you asked at the top of this thread.

Incidentally, my name is Dick Hulan, I've been a member of the Yahoo Black Banjo group for years, and I've corresponded with you previously about my old friend DeFord Bailey and other matters -- including responses to previous requests for assistance when you were in Germany and England.  On those occasions, you mostly were a bit more civil.

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.

I am not getting into this with you or anyone.  You entered the conversation quite abrasively attacking Carl, then you were quite abrasive saying silly things about the challenges we made to the idea that the person in the 1840s and 60s was the same person.  Carl simply repeated Lowell's questions about the issue from a point of extreme familiarity with Converse both on Lowell's part and Carl part, so when they talk I listen. 

 

I have Brown's comments.   His small section about Butler repeats information from a source about the history of minstrelsy that was published around 1860 in a New York newspaper and republished several times.  The section about Butler seems to be have been repeated over and over again in late 19th and early 20th century stuff about minstrelsy and seems to be the core of the materials about him you find whenever you look for material.
 
razyn said:

OK, the guy I was trying to remember was Col. Thomas Allston Brown (b. 1836), and while some of his reminiscences about stage people were indeed published as late as 1913, they had also been published as early as 1872.  And he had been collecting them (by personal interviews etc.) since 1858.

My April, 2007 thread about it on the old Tom Briggs Minstrel Banjo forum is still visible: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/Tom-Briggs/RS3JX_XVwXQ

In my opinion Brown himself is a 19th century source, he was referring at least in part to the actual African-American banjoist in question, and his relatively brief note about Butler is not gleaned from the 20th century Converse material.  My mention of it was therefore an entirely appropriate response to the question you asked at the top of this thread.

Incidentally, my name is Dick Hulan, I've been a member of the Yahoo Black Banjo group for years, and I've corresponded with you previously about my old friend DeFord Bailey and other matters -- including responses to previous requests for assistance when you were in Germany and England.  On those occasions, you mostly were a bit more civil.

Yeah,  Brown does not claim that this is Picayune Butler from New Orleans.   However,  I think this John Bjutler may have been one of several people who as minstrel entertainers inhabited the character Picayune Butler.   The Clipper also wrote that William Coleman also known as W. H., Coleman operated as Picayune Butler when iprinted the names of a benevolent society of minstrel entertainers in 1861, I believe.

Even before getting into banjos, I did a lot of research on popular literature and press in the 1840s and 1850s.  One of the things you do find is the way that newspapers and books shamelessly plagiarized each other without referrence (maybe as a former English professor who used to teach students how to document their papers I expect too much, LOL) so you can have one or two statements having a life time of 100 years.

 

 

This is available online here http://www.circushistory.org/Cork/BurntCork1.htm

Dan'l said:

The listing in Col. T. Allston Brown's Brown's Burnt Cork Biography is merely: "Butler, John: died in New York, November 18, 1864, of heart trouble."

       Perhaps an online or microfiche read of obits that week in one of the New York Papers (library collection) if available, would shed more light. Perhaps the stage nickname Picayune was far more prominent than any single performer using it ever was, since Brown only gave the guy one sentence in a listing that waxes many paragraphs for other Minstrels.

       (apparently Col. Brown never published his writings on Minstrelry as one book, but rather mostly as installments in the theatre paper The New York Clipper.  William L. Stout and Circus Historical Society, Inc. collected Brown's writings as Burnt Cork and Tamborines, A Directory of Minstrelry, copyright 2005. I don't know that they ever had hard copy book of it made up).

If you go to this page, http://www.circushistory.org/Cork/BurntCork4.htm    You will find that Brown says NOTHING about any connection between the John Butler he mentions and Picayune Butler.  All he says is "BUTLER, JOHN: died in New York, November 18, 1864, of heart trouble."

Now had this John Butler had as many billings in top theaters as the person billing himself as "The Oiriginal Picayune Butler" had between 1857 and 1861, and made such a name for himself as the reports of his performance in the banjo contest indicate.   Certainly, Brown would have said more

 

 

Lowell actually uses Brown's recounting to weave through the various reports of Picayune Butler as Brown wrote of the Black Picayune Butler in the Clipper in 1860 saying  the New Orleans player who was a  "copper-colored player of the four string banjo" who became known in New Orleans and Cincinnati in the Clipper in 1860.  That he would have any connection with this John Butler who died in 1864 obviously would have been noted by Brown.

On the other hand the contemporary article on the banjo contest in the Clipper lists a J. Butler as a contestant in the contest.  Morrell who sponsored the contest wrote in his 1890 letter to the Stewart Journal that this John Butler was touring under the name of with the nickname Picayune Butler. 

 

The level of popularity of the song in general entertainment since at least the 1840s and the character probably meant anyone named Butler in the banjo entertainment field would get nicknamed "Picayune" even if they didn't want to be called this and it certainly was an advantage. 

The 1858-61 New York Billings for "the original Picayune Butler" do not say John Picayune Butler as this banjoist seems to have been known or John Butler, but "the original Picayune Butler."   This might have been Coleman.

 

Again, what seems to be true is that quite separate from the actual Black banjoist, a character or cultural image of Picayune Butler had emerged--by non banjo stuff I have found this was probably true in popular culture by the mid 1840s.   A number of circus and minstrel stage performers probably inhabited this character including John Bulter and Coleman.   None of them appear to have been African American.

 

The death of Butler in 1864 and of Coleman in 1867 and Coleman's later moves to the West might explain why these two imitators left the field, but it would be interesting to know, and I am sure those of you familiar with the evolution of minstrelsy which I am not may have answers, whether or why such imitators ceased being a factor in the profession after the Civil War


 
Tony Thomas said:

If you go to this page, http://www.circushistory.org/Cork/BurntCork4.htm    You will find that Brown says NOTHING about any connection between the John Butler he mentions and Picayune Butler.  All he says is "BUTLER, JOHN: died in New York, November 18, 1864, of heart trouble."

Now had this John Butler had as many billings in top theaters as the person billing himself as "The Oiriginal Picayune Butler" had between 1857 and 1861, and made such a name for himself as the reports of his performance in the banjo contest indicate.   Certainly, Brown would have said more

 

 

If you go to the Tom Briggs forum post I made in 2007, and have cited above, you will find that Col. Brown also said (in a passage about a clown named George Nichols who was singing "Jim Crow" in 1834):  "He first conceived the idea from a French darkie, a banjo player, known from New Orleans to Cincinnati as Picayune Butler-a copper colored gentleman, who gathered many a picayune [a small Spanish coin, worth half a real] by singing "Picayune Butler is Going Away," accompanying himself on his four-stringed banjo."

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