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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Just another note from Converse.  In Installment 5 of Banjo Reminiscences, an article in which the first sentence mentions the Morrell 1857 contest,  Converses says he knows of only one contest "wherein the color drive was not drawn" and this a contest in Kansas City in 1884 involving Pittsburgh based banjo entertainer and banjo maker C. P, Stinson whom he says was the first to use "themandolin pick.".  Obviously,  the Pic Butler he describes in the 1857 was not  Black

Further on in the same installment Converse  Wichelll's remembrances of the 1847 Evans' Minstrels.   When Winchell lists the cast of the company and gets to Juba,  Winchell and Converse after him note he is Black like this "jack Huntley, Frank Moran, Bill Elliot,  Juba (colored). .  .  In the next sentence Winchell liss banjoists he believes Gus Mead could have beat  "Briggs, Rumsey, Pic Butler or any of them" he makes no such notation about this Pic Butler.


Anyone know how to contact  Dan Wykes?  If he isn't on this list can someone have him email me about this stuff at blackbanjotony@hotmail.com.  He had a very relevant post a aboutbout all of this in the authentic campaigner about 5 years ago

Apart from the issues about the later-day  white minstrel Butlers.   I am a bit concerned about the thinness of evidence about Butler in New Orleans.  

T A Brown wrote a series on the history of minstrelsy in the Clipper in 1860 that contains a paragraph about George Nichols and Picayune Butler.  He seems to have reprinted that article or series under a number of different titles including in the 1874 book up to the early 20th Century.   Almost every other source that speaks about this that I have found from the late 19th Century on repeats this or uses this as its only source.  I thought that Nichols had left a memoir that was the basis for this, but  that does not seem to be.  

The next issue would be to investigate the connection between Rice and Butler, after all it is Rice that actually leaves us the song about Butler.  Some of the claims about Jim Crow that focus on Nichols give the impression that Rice's success with Jim Crow was when Rice began singing and performing the song, but Rice began beforing the song in 1829 BEFORE Nichols says he began performing the song and did perform the song based on show announcements in New Orleans I have found for Nichols.

Note Rice was performing in the same circuses and shows that Nichols was performing in both in New Orleans and in Cincinnati and Louisville.

I have yet to find any information that clearly speaks of a Picayune Butler performing in New Orleans that isn't some derivative of the T. A Brown reports via Nichols, same post civil war memoirs.  There is a faint mention in a review of a performance in New Orleans that refers to a banjoist referred to as "old Butler" but there is nothing other than a backward reference by Kmen that identifies that this is Picayune Butler or anyone really.

The other thing that becomes true if you breeze through references in minstrel performance bills and newspaper accounts from the 1840s through the 1860s is that once the song Picayune Butler came out, it was a tremendous national success, one of the biggest hits of the minstrel stage and probably entering areas of popular music beyond minstrelsy.  The song and the ideas about it were so popular that writers about politics, local, national, and even international, or about many other subjects might refer to the song in some way in regular newspapers across the US and even foreign correspondents, expecting newspaper readers to know the song and what it signified.  So that the idea of Picayune Butler, and the image embodied in the song was part of mass popular culture in the United States, if not beyond, from the mid 1840s through the civil war.

In other words in upstate New York, or Charleston South Carolina, or a foreign correspondent writing from Italy in the 1850s and Democratic party supporters of McClellan trying to make Lincoln look bad for fighting for freedom in 1864 would expect any reader of their newspaper to know what they were talking about when they referred to Picayune Butler, the song.  they wouldn't have to explain it.

Curiously, o perhaps not so curiously, there is no connection in any of this writing about an actual Picayune Butler a Black banjoist in New Orleans or elsewhere, except in the song as performed or known.  A variety of claims about him crop up in a variety of stories about how General Benjamin Butler the occupier of New Orleans acquired the nickname Picayune, although some evidence might suggest he acquired it before he arrived in New Orleans and these are made to match

It Is only AFTER the Civil War in "memoirs" like the one from Cincinatti we have reproduced here and in an identical one I found in an 1870 Memphis paper

I should say I have spent a lot of time over the years looking at 19th century popular literature and "journalism."  Writers were pretty free to write whatever they thought would sound good, writers didn't have to provide any proof for what they wrote, and writers were often encouraged to make up something interesting.

The question occurs how much are these "memoirs" some 30 or 40 years after the fact,  creations of the cultural image created by the song and its popularity and the performers emulating the character in the song.

How much are we dealing with a powerful cultural image created by the song and the minstrel entertainers who gave it mass popularity and how much have we ever been dealing with a real New Orleans banjoist?




Tony, I have to say this is a fascinating thread.  I'm a bit of a history buff, and while I don't have any great new information for you, it always interests me. 

It is always fun to find out that something we think that we don't know a lot about, when we start digging into it, there is a lot of information out there.  On the other hand, some times when we look at things we think we know a lot about, we find that there is little actual information out there.  Sometimes frustrating, but interesting none the less.

Thanks for all your research.

What I find interesting is actually the holes in what we used to think as good history and research on one side, and the opportunities for such research today afforded by the internet and some of the databases.   I began doing this expecting information I had long depended on from sources like Cece Conway's book to be accurate.  I could just crib that together do my footnotes right and be on with it.  But a critical search shows that what we thought was solid fact was wrong, misleading, and didn't make sense if you examine the facts,  Got a bunch of hard work in libraries to do.


Been doing a lot of looking in 19th century Newspaper archives, gathering articles, rather than going through them largely.   One thing seems to be that at least in the 1848 and 1852 national campaigns and some local or state campaigns in New York state in particular  the song "Picayune Butler" may have been identified with the Democratic Party and may have even been the D part campaign song in 1852.

This contrasts with the 1864 presidential campaign where some Democrats tried to make much of Lincoln's affection for the song


Practical question gets posed.   How many of the tunes attributed in the minstrel song books and tutors  are tunes at least mythically attributed to the Black picayune butler who may have entertained from New Orleans to Ohio in the 1820s and 1830s or may be a legend conjured up by minstrel entertainers like Jim Crow,  and how many particularly in the later tutors like Buckley's   and Converses are tunes that really come from John B Butler who performed as the Original Picayune Butler in NYC from 1857 at least (when he first appears in the clipper and the city directory) and his death in 1864?   Since there were several others performing as Pic Butler even in NYC in the 50s,  might some of these tunes be from them.  Is there a way to tell?\


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