Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I have been doing a heck of a lot of work on the Picayune Butler issue for the presentation I will give in November at the Banjo Gathering,  once known as the banjo collectors gathering,  in Knoxville on the weekend of Nov 14-17.   Guided by the work of Lowell Schreyer and kind advice from people here,  I have found a lot of information, particularly from 19th century newspaper databases and from the tattered ancient microfilms of The Clipper in the New York Public Library's performance branch at Lincoln Center.    Most importantly, perhaps I have returned to a lot of scholarship on mid 19th Century African American life and discovered some great new work on that and its relationship with Blackface entertainment,  minstrelsy, and urban white people in general, particularly in New York in the years before the Civil War.  The work of Shane white and a recent  TDR issue on minstrelsy have been decisively important.

The basic facts are pretty much what I, Carl Anderton and others have disclosed here several months ago. 

1) Picayune Butler may have been a Black martinican banjoist, a street busker in New Orleans. I say "may" become the information about this Butler is absolutely sketchy and 2, 3rd, and 4th hand and could be largely legendary.

                     2) Butler's singing and banjo playing inspired non-banjo playing Black face originators George Nichols and T. D. Rice who visited New Orleans working with Circuses, and they may have learned some songs from him, including possibly Jim Crow.  But nothing much is known of this Butler and he may have disappeared from the scene in the 1830s.

                     3) Other banjoist, notably Phil Rice also claimed to have learned songs from him, including "Picayune Butler's Coming to Town" a song that became a major hit in minstrelsy and popular music between the 1840s and the civil war,  although it retained some popularity throughout the 19th century.

                    4)  The popularity of the song for Black face minstrelsy and the acts that went with it were so great that by the late 1840s in the circuses and later in minstrel shows,  white blackface entertainers inhabited the role of Picayune Butler for a song,  for an act,  and some for a career.

                       5)  This is complicated by the fact that the popularity of the tune in 19th century culture was so great that many people acquired Picayune Butler as a nickname,  and anyone named Butler in public life was apt to be tagged that way.

                        6)  A white banjo entertainer from up state NY whom I believe was born in the 1830s and moved to NYC in the 1850s named John Butler became widely known throughout his career as "Pic Butler."  He was reckoned as one of the best banjoists of his period.  He was a member of a number of the major minstrel companies of the 1850s and early 1860s, but also broke out of working in a minstrel troupe and worked as a solo artists in a variety package at places like Gaieties in NYC.  He sometimes advertised himself as "The original Picayune Butler" as did a number of other banjoists in NYC and elsewhere.  It is John Butler whom Converse describes as being the first professional banjoist he met.  It is John Butler who participated in the 1857 NY Banjo contest, allegedly losing due to his own drunkenness.   John Butler died in 1864,  although throughout the 19th century other minstrel entertainers inhabited the role of Picayune Butler, none of them Black

                       7.  Major  easiest available 19th century sources of information about the Black Picayune Butler and John Butler are absolutely clear that they are separate people.

     8.  In the early 20th century sources on minstrelsy with no real references began to combine the original Picayune Butler of New Orleans with information about John Butler from the 1850s and 1860s.  

     9.  Both scholars of African American music and humor, scholars of minstrelsy,  and scholars of the banjo leapt on this unsubstantiated legend because  it  met people's desires to honor Africa American roots of minstrelsy and banjo playing and American popular entertainment and as my next post will make clear,  it helped soothe the harsh realities of precivil war Blackface minstrelsy's harsh relationship with real African Americans.

     10.  The first crack in this legend came in Lowell Schreyer's "The Banjo Entertainers"  A BOOK THAT BELONGS IN EVERY HOME AND MORE IMPORTANTLY IN EVERY LIBRARY

      11   ARound here and beyond much credit should go to Carl Anderton who figured out the basic facts of this following Lowell and has tried to make thse points among his many other splendid contributions to our knowledge of the banjo and its history.

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     Beyond the facts, bigger questions emerge both about 19th century minstrelsy and race relations, and about the confusions and paternalism of 20th and 21st century old time and banjo revivalism and its problems confronting the real issue of the relationship between minstrel entertainment and actual Black people and Black performers.

      No person familiar with popular entertainment in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s let alone with Black face entertainment, minstrelsy,  or banjo entertainment could have possibly thought that an African American or Afro-Caribbean entertainer could have been a major entertainer on the minstrel stage,  a member of major minstrel companies in this period.   Aside from Japanese Tommy--an African American midget who passed himself off as Japanese--and Master Juba the dancer before he left for the UK,  NO REGULAR BLACK ENTERTAINERS PARTICIPATED IN BLACKFACE MINSTRELSY BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR.

          Blackface minstrelsy was NOT simply a group of white entertainers who liked Black music and culture and adopted it as an entertainment vehicle.  Central to the ethos of Blackface minstrelsy in this period was the deep hostility of the culture in general,  the particular audience, and entertainers to real AFrican Americans and our culture.  Central to its operation was creation of a set of images of African Americans that fit with that attitude, images that the reality of AFrican American performance conflicted with, images that African Americans found insulting, degrading, racist, and demeaning. 

From the anti-emancipation riots of the 1830s to the 1863 pogrom against African Americans in New York City,  the audience base of Blackface minstrelsy reacted with violence and hostility to the threats of real African Americans in the North to advance themselves or attain social justice and equality.  As Shane white has ably documented, this violence and opposition was directed particularly at African Americans who tried to participate in popular entertainment in NYC throughout this period. 

The Clipper's 1863 coverage of an 1863 attempt by Philadelphia African Americans to present an all-Black minstrel-like entertainment is a rather telling example of this hostility.  It is quite significant that the Clipper reported that when whites took exception to some of their performance, the Black entertainers shouted  something like "We're not your Picayune Butlers."   Sadly,  this Black minstrel show seemed no more elevated than the white minstrel shows, featuring similar sexism and a skit whose main business was negative ethnic stereotypes of Irish immigrants


Finally as a banjo and African American history scholar and player whose main focus has NOT been early 19th century banjo or minstrel banjo, a number of very important facts for banjo and American history became quite important to me in this search.  Some of these may be old hat to veteran minstrel banjo enthusiasts but let me line them out shortly.

The first is the incredible breadth and strength of popular culture and entertainment expressed in Blackface minstrelsy and the aspects of the commercial music industry that  accompanied it. 

The second is that whatever wharts and problems existed, the Picayune Butler story suggests that Black banjoists like Butler and others, not allowed in commercial entertainment, often busking in the streets of the urban North and South are as much a part of the prehistory of the explosion of banjo entertainment in the mid 19th century as plantation and slave community dance banjoists whom banjoists like Sweeney claimed to learn from and whose tradition continued among African Americans into the mid 20th century.

The third is the fairly wide range of knowledge by mid 19th century people about the origin and background of the banjo.  I have participated in a series of events across the country honoring Jim Carrier's movie The Librarian and the Banjo which should also be in every home.  It trumpets the great scholar Dena Epstein as establishing the African roots and African New World origin of the banjo and the African American provenance of the banjo in the United States.   My friends and heroes Greg Adams and Shlomo Pestcoe have done magnificent things in their forthcoming work documenting the progress of the banjo from African and European antecedants to the New World early gourd banjos of the Caribbean and North American. 

But Rice's Picayune Butler song speaks of the Black provenance of banjo and its origin in the Early gourd banjo. Inasmuch as commentary on Butler suggest that he was from Martinique, Guadeloupe, or perhaps Haiti,  it suggests a practical acquaintance of 19th century people with the Caribbean origin of the banjo.

You don't have to be Gumbo Chaff in the 19th century to have known that the banjo reflected African culture and had an AFrican prehistory.

I doubt in 1850 or even 1860 you could have found many people who believed that the banjo was not a product of Black people and somehow linked to our African origin

I find such remarks pretty unserious but we live in a racist society among millions of people who try to trivialize the oppression of Black people both in the current day and the past.  That people try to defend the slavocracy and Confederacy and slavery to this day suggests that it is not surprising that people would object to the identifying the racism involved in Black face minstrelsy.

.   Most serious observations of Blackface entertainment by white people, particularly between the 1830s and the Civil War point out that it was fundamentally racist by definition taking a racist depiction of African Americans as one of its starting points.  

Major figures in Blackface entertainment especially T. D. Rice made many public statements about how Black face entertainment, minstrelsy and themselves supported slavery and opposed any changes in the status of Blacks.   Foster,  a major figure associated with minstrelsy was closely and energetically connected with the major northern supporters of slavery and wrote songs attacking abolition and praising the Copperhead traitors. 

 Frederick Douglass was not alone among African American leaders and cultural figures in condemning the racism of minstrelsy even though Douglas's writing was remarkable in his appreciation of the importance of Black music and encouragement of African American entertainers who sought to provide a Black alternative to minstrelsy.  Major white supporters of equality for African Americans also condemned  antebellum Black face minstrelsy for its racism.

In 2004 at the banjo collectors gathering I attended a Panel put on reenacting previous historical periods music which include my hero George Wunderlich,  the Great Bob Winans and others.  George and Bob spoke in particular about a reenactment of an actual minstrel show that they had organized for a group of scholars, both said that such an accurate reenactment was too offensive to be produced for the general or even interested public.  The both spoke about how profoundly and physically shocked that these scholars were at the level of racism, but at the deeper level of misogyny and violence in general that was part of it.

I did not single out minstrelsy,  and I have written against people who single out minstrelsy for its racism when it was part of a barborous racist society that perpetrated atrocities against African Americans, Native peoples,  and Asians and wasn't so nice to most white people and was just as racist in the pulpit, the university, the White House and the congress.   I happen to be writing about minstrelsy, so this is of which I speak.

Dan'l obviously doesn't like the rethinking of the world imposed on him and others and the world by the civil rights and Black power movements.  He seems to long to reconstruct a world where racist jokes, and disgusting depictions of Black people are just seen as clean white fun, the kind of fun boys wearing sheets used to have before Black people stopped them.

Racism, sexism, fascism, and many things bad do not have effective and meaningful impacts unless they are popular among "the common people."  My wife is from Germany and I have spent a lot of time, sometimes months and months in Germany.  One of my favorite people on Earth is my wife's mother who was one of thecommon people who supported Hitler at the time and went along with what other people were doing and looks back at the period of before the War as a happy pleasant time, disregarding what was happening to other people.  To put together a book on genology for my wife's grand nephew,  I scanned the many documents the family put together in 1934 proving how many generations back they were arayans, each stamped with the swastika.    These were good people doing what everyone else was doing doing what most "common people" did.   That doesn't change what was going on.

Of course, Hitler himself looked back at American racism as his ideal, as what he was trying to reproduce, and felt bad the Confederacy failed.  But I guess he was one of the common people.

This all is not a joke to me.  When I grew up, I had a grandfather and a grand mother and a great grand mother in my life all of whose parents had been slaves.  Having been in the civil rights movement in Mississippi,  I don't look at the civil rights and other revolutions, as "rethinking,"  because there are people I know who caught bombs and bullets behind that. 

But it is simply silly or just defending racism and insulting Black people and the other minstrelsy denigrated to claim that Black face minstrelsy was anything but harsh and hostile to real Black people like the population who embraced it.

I simply am not going to argue with anyone who denies that Black face minstrelsy was racist and harsh against Black people any more than I would waste time arguing with a person who argued the the Earth was the center of the Universe, that the Jews control the banks, or that witches and hobgoblins are the cuases of difficulty in tuning banjos.  I suggest such people confront their own racism and explore the idea that Black people and white fighters against racism have developed on this issue since the founding of this country.

Of course, there was more involved in minstrelsy than just racism, but that does not obviate the fact that one of its hallmarks from the beginnings to the time when it was essentially stopped by the progress of Black people that minstrelsy was racist,  and hostile to Black people.

But then there are racissts out there who argue the Confederacy was a good thing

It all  ends up being about you other than about the realities of the world.  History is real, inscribed on the backs and in the graves of real people.  I talked about forces in history and ideology.  I dont know you or care about you or individuals, but about history.  Find a reputable book about minstrelsy and its history that doesnt indicate it was deeply racist.  Read real history about the period.  Find a major expert who has researched minstrel banjo who doesnt think it was racist?  Do you think Mahar and Bob Winans and George Wunderlich and Frederich Douglas and oh yeah Dena Epstein are all wrong.

Many people though Lynchings were entertainments too and rented excursion trains to get there,  photographers appeared to take peopke's pictures holding the mutilated pieces of people's body's.  Entertainment is not exempt from history.  People sold soft drinks and politicians and preachers appear to gather around the large crowds that gathered for them.  N

The exact is issue is why there we NO black entertainers in minstrelsy, and why that was simply inconceivable to people Black and white in antebellum minstrelsy.  Converse says Blacks were banned from banjo contests until the 1880s.    Was that just about entertainment.

Were the 1863 pogroms in NYC about entertainment or the 1830s anti emancipation riots.   Have you examined the real world Black people inhabited then?

But it really isnt about you, but about real history,  grown up history,  not typing on a web list about yourself.

As administrator of this forum I expect a level of civility.  Without that we cannot have a dialog.  Name calling and insinuations are not acceptable.


With that said, racism is the 500 pound gorilla in the room.  When considering it however we need to try to understand the people of the time.  First, nearly everyone in the United States at that time was a racist by today's definition (the word racism did not exist back then).  This includes most abolitionists.  Without that understanding you cannot look at this era.


Second, it is easy for us to look back and make judgments about the people, arts, and institutions of the time.  I firmly believe that if the people back then could look forward to our society today they would have a lot of harsh criticism to make about us, just as we harshly criticize them.


It is really disappointing to read the writings of people like Emmett and Converse and seeing the racism in some of their remarks.  Tony makes a good point, there was a motive in minstrelsy to depict slavery in a positive light, hogwash like slaves were all loved and well taken care of by their masters, that they were better off as slaves than with their freedom, that they could work all day and dance all night, etc.  This shows up in a lot of the music.  Tony also makes a good point about the fact that prior to the Civil War an African American would not be put up on a stage.


But you cannot stereo type all minstrel musicians as all falling into this category and selling these falsehoods.  There are a number of songs that were sympathetic to enslaved Americans.  Daniel is right in his statement that minstrel performers were a cross section of American values of the time.  I find it interesting that what little record we do have of the repertoire of black musicians back then includes a number of songs that we today call racist.  I don't think that they would have defined racism back then the way that we do today.


The most amazing thing, is that in spite of the widespread racism of the time, that American music has significant roots in the music of African Americans.  Yes, white and black musicians did play together, and learned from one another.  I was blown away by the book Way Up North in Dixie that George Root was willing to offer the Snowden family money to come and live with them to study music with them.  Something else that a number of the books on minstrelsy point out is that there was a much greater intermingling between lower class whites and African Americans than we would consider, at least that I previously considered.  I don't think we really understand race relations of the time, and feel that we have to be careful about jumping to fast conclusions.

I was wondering when you two would get into it.

Tony wrote:

The exact is issue is why there we NO black entertainers in minstrelsy,

Ok this confuses me- Tony, are you saying here that there were no black entertainers in minstrelsy ?

I thought there were early black minstrel shows as well...?  Am I misunderstanding? Someone clue me in please?

Black entertainers did not become involved in minstrelsy (performing publicly) until after the Civil War.  Minstrelsy actually gave a large number of black musicians their start in the entertainment field.  It was a really strange time.  My skin crawls when I read the lyrics being sung by some of the white minstrels of the 1870s and 1880s, and yet black minstrel troups were enormously popular at the same time. 

African Americans had their freedom, and were now an economic threat, and a lot of whites dealt with this in a really harsh manner.  I would hesitate to use the word harsh as a generalization before the war, some of the racism involved was a matter of social norms of the time. That doesn't make it nice, or right, but from what I have seen of the lyrics and motives it was kind of matter of fact. After the war things became much more targeted, and you had the rise of the KKK, etc.  Some of those pages are dripping with hatred.  

When I say matter of fact I mean in attitude, not actual fact. 

Well, there was William Henry Lane, who was not just a dancer but also performed with minstrel groups in the 1840's. http://www.danceheritage.org/treasures/lane_essay_hill.pdf

Well people who do not understand the race relations of the time need to consult competnt work by Black and white researchers on that and on minstrelsy.  There are stacks of books about it and scores of journal articles about it.   But if you are afraid to confront racism in the world, then it is a mystery to you.

.  Black face minstrelsy was based in large part on the depiction of Black people in a way that no people, particularly Black people were at that or any time,  a position that is deeply racist and was seen as such by African Americans and most white opponents of racism at the time.  And is a unanamous view of contemporary researchers about minstrelsy.   Lane and Japanese Tommy a black midget who masquaraded as Japanese are the only known Black minstrel entertainers in the pre-Civil WAr period.   Lane made a few performances and left for England.

But of the hundreds and hundreds of performers,  until after the Civil War, NONE WERE BLACK?

It is rather appalling that anyone here contests this, but then throughout my life,  I have learned throughout my life many white people have problems dealing with the realities of racism in society and in culture, otherwise it wouldnt exist.It should be added that a new body of work about the Black minstrelsy both criticizes its concessions to racism and emphasizes it direction to reject the stereotypes and racism of white face minstrelsy.  But anyone who examines Black face minstrelsy in the civil war period and thinks that its depiction and attitude about black people, when it used other words,  probably doesnt understand racism in America today either

Those who defend oppression often find the voices of the oppressed against it "uncivil"

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