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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The big problem with banjo origins is that most of the real hard work, massively researched, and the product of a real international collaboration between people in Africa, North America,  Europem, and the Caribbean is in forthcoming work.   But at least now I can say that pretty much all we need to know is available in work that iis just forthcoming, that is in work that has stood the test of criticism and editing and inspection by scholars  around the world,  not just banjo head enthusiasts, but scholars in the disciplines. 

Unfortunately the lag time in getting a scholarly book out is getting longer and longer and longer especially as the UP s  have cutback after cutbaks.

  But the group working on banjo roots and discussing it for the past 20 years or so are pretty conclusive about it, and massivey research work confirms the Caribbean origin of the banjo as well as its African antecedants.   It is just the problem of getting the work out in critically reviewed, scholarly published  formats.  I should say that this is based on teams of scholars who held open all possibilities, many of whom first thought banjos might have originated in Africa.

Paul Ely Smith said:

I am a published professional banjo researcher and performer with four decades of banjo playing experience, numerous recordings, blah, blah, blah, and I would absolutely, honestly, deny that the first banjo was introduced into Africa.  Dude, deal with it--the ekonting, the halam, the kontingo, the ngoni...These. Are. Banjos.

Banjos are defined as having flat finger boards and tuning pegs as opposed to pole like necks and tuning strings.   The striking thing about it is there is only one known reference to anyone playing a West African lute  in the Americas, int he 19th century in Brazil,  and perhaps one such reference which may be a harp or something like that from the early 1600s in Columbia.   On the other hand there are scores of references to early banjos being played with distinct physical descriptions or pictures dating from the 1680s all over the Carribean basin in North America.

Something happened in the 1600s or shortly before in the Caribbean that made making banjos a better idea than making akontings or xalams, or the other instruments.  Laurent Dubois at Duke says that the availability of flat boards or techniq2ues for making them for the barrels sugar, rum and other products were shipped in may have been a factor.  I have a  gambia gourd violin with those tuning strings, and I can tell you even the worst tuning pegs on the worst cheap violin I have ever owned are a joy compared with trying to tune that Gambia violin.  

People in a new situation saw flat fingerboards and foudn they worked better than poles.  People saw tuning pegs and saw they worked better than tuning strings.   They created something new that was so good that nobody with the same needs ever bothered to create the old stuff.

Claiming that the African instruments are banjos simply denies all of this.  None of the people I know either in North America, Europe, or Africa associated with our knowledge and playing of these instruments believes this.

Your statements about Sweeney illustrate how far outside modern banjo research you are.  Sweeney himself never claimed to have invented the banjo or the five string banjo or the frame headed banjo, although he certainly popularized those innovations on an international scale and was a fascinating and thrilling entertainer.  But we have record of these innovations in banjo making apart from Sweeney.  Even Cece's book from the 1990s points that out and  Bob Carlin's great book about Sweeney is pretty clear about it.

Strumelia said:

Not sure why my post disappeared, but I'll try again...


There are some problems here.

You have done years of reading and research and you make great points and you know a whole lot. I remember you when you were just starting to play banjo (and you, me). Additionally, as a black person and musician you have perspectives in this subject in particular which are vitally important and ought to be heard by all.


You make it pretty much impossible to have any kind of discourse with you.  First of all, (though least in importance)- many of your sentences don't even make sense grammatically, it's extremely difficult to sift through.  Then you go on and on... and on, posting posts to yourself and answering your own posts with more posts upon posts. No one can put forth even a single thought or even a question without you jumping on and insulting them and then continuing your epic monologues.  It's more a rambling raving lecture than a 'discussion'.  You don't need a forum you need a closed website, a blog with no Comment Wall, where no one will dare try to interject any thoughts or interrupt you in any way.

You come in here supposedly looking for help and input on a subject you said you knew little about, thrashing about like a bull in a china shop, driving people away, name-dropping, patronizing and insulting your host, even telling people to not respond to your posts because they don't know as much as you. (!) It's sad, boorish, and it only causes people to not want to bother reading your posts at all. Do you actually want to interact in some way here?  Do you want people to hear what you have to say?  Or do you just want to berate everyone and wind up talking to yourself like some blowhard?   It's like the coming of the Anti-Patrick.  Tony, I've communicated with you for 15 years now, I've always been fond of you and believe me I mean this in a constructive way.

"The Hard truths about Picayune Butler" indeed.///

Do you have any information to contribute about the topic other than your desire that such grown up topics not be discussed and that serious questions should not be taken seriously?   

It really does not matter what Dan'l thinks.  He can think that a banjo must have a hydraulic clutch to exist. 

But a body of collaborative scholarly discussion about the identity and history of the banjo exists and has been in developed form this time around--because it existed pretty much in the same form and results in the 19th century--that identifies what a banjo is, in particular reference to discussing the banjo's relationship with similar instruments in general and with West African instruments that share its characteristics.  

Banjos have flat fingerboards and tuning pegs, a membrane cover and some form that stretches that membrane cover be it  a gourd, a calabash, or  a torque ring from a Buick.  Banjos are not defined by anyone as skin headed instruments.  Such instruments go back as far as we know to the most ancient times in Central Asia thence to Ancient Egypt.

One of the trickier things about this is that the influence of banjos once they began to be manufactured in the United States and the United Kingdom and elsewhere has tended to predominate over similar instruments in a variety of countries not just in the Americas, but in Africa, Asia, and Europe where banjos or banjo construction techniques have replaced those fo traditional instruments.  The banjo is really historically important as an early example of a manufactured and industrially designed piece of material culture that travels around the world very quickly in a few decades and become part of the popular and even folk culture of a variety of different parts of the world.

  My own work like the recent piece I have out in the Duke collection, suggests that whatever vague "cultural" aspects it might have, the banjo's rise and fall has had a lot to do with both with itshandiness, easiness to make and to manufacutre and practical use, and the many and continuous practical innovations in its contruction, both in the initial ideas of gourd banjos that came to replace earlier African instruments int he New World, but the continued developments of the banjo by European, American, and ultimately Asian manufacturers

As I wrote earlier in the draft Kubik showed me, we now have home made folk banjos being made in Africa, often in areas like Malawi where there is no organic link to the West African instruments that prefigured the banjo.   There are even a few people who look at thease instruments and have posted them on Youtube as proof of African roots of the banjo,  when these instruments clearly replicate features banjos did not have until at least the 1850s.

Dan'l said:

Paul - I still feel that "skin-headed instruments existed in West Africa is too small and narrow a factor to assign as the majority attribution of the origins of the American banjo."  There are other characteristics besides skin-headed, however, that do make the West-African antecedents a significant heritage leading to the thing we call banjo.  It's consistent with what my views have been on the topic, and hardly something that should be disturbing.  The Balkans banjo cited in my comment looks quite similar to West-African types, which is consistent with my view that the West-African types are not so overwhelmingly unique in the World.  It is the playing style on the West-African types that, in my view, make them more significant to what we now call Banjo.


Your view that "the whole audience laughed" ignores what every major Black analyst of minstrelsy has said since it began.

   You can find some women who buy admission tickets to strip clubs, does not mean they are not sexist. 

But that is a rather thing thread to hold down.  How does that contrast with say Mahar who exquisitely points out that minstrelsy was about much more than racism and its depiction of Blacks, and discusses its references to European music in general and British and Italian music and cultre in particular, social class etc, but still points out its essentially racist character of its delineation of Blacks as being part of its fundamental style.  Do you disagree with T.D. Rice's many published declarations that Black face was in total support of slavery and keeping Black people in their place.

You are in slim company but why are you so concerned with trying to prove that people the world has correctly understood were racists and insulting to Black people were not?  These thigns are not intellectual abstractions, but the product of social forces  in contest, and ways we live our life in contest.   

Frankly I prefer the side of Frederick Douglass and Dena Epstein

Frankly I do not understand what white people could possibly think any Black person would think when confronted with the depiction of Black people in early minstrelsy, or for that matter in the last dregs of white Blackface minstrelsy that survived.  To be sure one or two or three or more may have been dragged into doing things for the desperation of money that a sane person would not do.

It isnt a question of abstract or critical analysis so much, though we can get into it, but just the question of basic humanity,    

This is particularly true since this is not  simply related to "entertainment" but was the culture of a society that was murderously violent to Black people, not just in the slavery South, but in New York and the other Northern urban centers of minstrelsy and the most violence was perpetrayed among the same social layers and individuals minstrelsy was centered among during the antebellum period.     Moreover,  when the leading figures involved in it were adamnant that they did not challenge the enslavement of Black people or support the equal treatment of Black people in the North,  and made abolitionists and free black rights activists a particular butt of their denigration,  why spit in their faces by denying it,

If you create an image of someone that degrades them and removes their humanity and tries to legislate their inferiority etc. etc. it is certainly supportive to their being treated the human beings are not to be treated.

Such a culture is, in fact, a necessary requirement for the perptuation fo the type of brutal racist society the United States was in the period before the Civil War, in particular.

That a person who is not just reading about this in a book but faces this every day in real life is rather adamant about this is what should be expected.   The horror that some people here have about this speaks to their racism.   No other way to talk about it.  I do not mean to guild the lilly, but  this is just what I face as a Black person.\

But then perhaps,  some would like this discussion not to include such people

Do you have any information to contribute about the topic other than your desire that such grown up topics not be discussed and that serious questions should not be taken seriously?

Implying that I only want childish topics to be discussed?

I'm not a little girl.  I think a topic can only be as 'grown up' as the maturity of its contributors.  I have no such desire as you claim and describe above. 

I have serious questions, some of which I've already asked.  I don't call myself an Important Scholar.  I joined here two years ago to learn.  And it's not easy with such self-important posturing and patronizing dismissals heating up the place like so many hot air balloons. 

Lisa is obviously unaware of the mountain of work on the Caribbean origin of the banjo that ha spoured forth in the four or five decades since Dena Epstein began publishing,  in the many publications onthe origin of the banjo that reproduce early banjos found in the Caribbean since the 17th century.  If she knows of any banjo citing developed elsewhere in the 17th century or before our first in Brooklyn in the 1730s, she should inform those of us who take this seriously enough to bother to know anything about it.    It is rather slanderous to say that my citing the link about this banjo in Curaco or Aruba, forget wherem,w as all there was, but if that is all she knows about or all of my work on the subject that she knows, then again, she should try to find out something about it it before speaking on the subject, soemthing anyone with Intet access can easily do.

She also knows that I pointed out I have engaged in organized discourse about the Caribbean since around 1970 and that in the general popular discussion of the Caribbean, as well as in scholarly discourse about it,  the developments of cultural in the islands and shores of the Caribbean in each particular country by the populations there now is considered indigenous.  If Lisa does not have that opinion,  then she is entitled to it, but the rest of the world, particularly the populations of the Caribbean and scholars who discuss it think otherwise.

Strumelia said:

Paul Ely Smith said:

I am a published professional banjo researcher and performer with four decades of banjo playing experience, numerous recordings, blah, blah, blah, and I would absolutely, honestly, deny that the first banjo was introduced into Africa.  Dude, deal with it--the ekonting, the halam, the kontingo, the ngoni...These. Are. Banjos.  Put a flat fingerboard on it, tuning pegs, frets, a pickup, a snowmobile engine, whatever.

Paul, unfortunately, there is still apparently confusion about this issue, or possible just confusion about the semantics and definitions, rather than the practical aspect of it all.  I do know that a few months ago I was told in no uncertain terms by Tony on Banjo-L that there were no banjos in Africa until they were brought there from here, that the banjo itself did not come from Africa, that banjos were invented by the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.  He gave an example of a photo of an elderly black musician there who had made a small tin can banjo-uke type instrument, and he suggested it must be a surviving very early native banjo form, a form passed down for many generations.  When I pointed out that the 'indigenous' people he was referring to who his says invented the banjo were slaves or descendants of slaves from Africa, not 'indigenous peoples' or native to that area, but rather people who had already brought their African music traditions and influences with them, he told me that those early slaves brought over are now categorized as the Indigenous People there by anthropologists, since the original people of the islands were killed off, and thus... the banjo is indigenous to the Caribbean, where it was first made by the indigenous peoples there.  I'm not saying this is or isn't so, I'm in no position to make such conclusions.  But now you are saying that all the earlier African related ancestors are in fact banjos.

I am not a 'published respected banjo scholar'.  I don't know as much as many of you here- you, Tony, John, and countless others.

But I have read and listened and paid attention to this subject for fifteen years, and I do know that there are major contradictions flying back and forth right here and now still as to what is 'fact' and what isn't.

And I can say that it's mighty confusing and frustrating.

Perhaps rather than continue this in this Picayune thread, maybe a whole new thread should be started about where the banjo actually originated?   The Caribbean?  Africa?  I think at least it's narrowed down to that?  But hard to believe that this basic basic starting point apparently still hasn't really been agreed upon yet?   Maybe we can view the moment of 'banjo creation' as a somewhat nebulous point in time and place that happened in some way connected to people of African traditions...whether actually in Africa or in the Caribbean..?

There's a communication pattern that is repeated over and over.  It's predictable and destructive, precludes learning and sharing, instead it drives people apart, shoots itself in the foot, and accomplishes nothing.  It does not build and connect.  It tears down, closes doors.  It's not even 'about' knowledge or topics.

It is not for you to determine "the scope of Blaacks concerns"  I would rather think that Frederick Douglass or even I are more qualified for that, but that seems to be your problem.  But contemporary Blacks were concerrned about it and denounced minstrelsy. They and cultural critics of all races since then did see the portrayals in minstrelsy as being linked to the fact that black people were being whiped etc. etc. 


Most contemporary accounts of minstrelsy do not say what you say about Blacks and minstrelsy or the theater in general in NYC.  Take a good look for example at Thomas Low Nichols, Forty Years of American Life (London, 1864), which you can download from Google if you want. 

Nichols points out that the only way that Mr. Juba,  Lane was able to appear on Barnum's stage--he did not appear in regular minstrelsy as far as I know--was to be made up in black face and wool wig to try to appear like he was  WHITE PERSON masquarading as a Black person because of the general ban on Black stage entertainers.

No said minstrelsy was only about racism, and I have written that here and in published print a bunch of times.   But  I am talking about the racism that it indicated,  I am talking about the actual reaction to it by real Black people then and since, and I am talking about the avowed racism of the people who were involved in it.

They did not deny that they supported slavery and believed the "niggers" needed to be put down.

You have a fantasy about minstrelsy and to maintain it you have to deny both the voices of the white people who engaged in it and black people then and now who remain appalled by it.  The only real motion in this operation is defending racism and decrying those appalled by it. 

You need to do some serious "rethinking."

We are way over simplifying a very complex subject.  If you want to have an academic discussion on this topic, please contact me and I will set up a means of doing so without dragging the entire forum into this discussion.  I would say that a large majority of our members are more interested in learning to play than in this form of debate.  However, l will not engage in anything were we are name calling, or making judgments about personal views.

To set the framework for how complicated this is, consider the following quote:

"While it is essential that minstrelsy's negative characteristics be explored and explained as overt manifestations of the racist attitude many Americans shared, the narrow focus on race and/or racism as the primary feature of blackface entertainment limits the application of the interdisciplinary methods and interpretive strategies needed to understand the context of one of the most popular forms of American comedy.  The limitations imposed by restrictive methodologies can be removed, however, if historians reconsider a few of the issues that have been bypassed in most  recent studies of American minstrelsy, namely, (1) the nonracial contents of blackface comedy; (2) the treatment of nonblack ethnic groups; (3) the socializing and class-defining functions of minstrel show humor; (4) the importance of minstrel shows as evidence of American ideas about politics, work, gender differences, domestic life, courtship, and marriage; (5) the use of the burnt-cork "mask" as a vehicle for reflexive, self-deprecating humor among various social, ethnic, and economic groups; and (6) the relationships between minstrel shows and other forms of American and English theater." 


Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds., Ethiopian Skits and Sketches: Contents and Contexts of Blackface Minstrelsy, 1840-1890, William J Maher,  Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan, 1996), 179

I would further recommend people read Inside the Minstrel Mask and Raising Cain, Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop.

Thank you, John. If such a forum is set up I would be interested in it from an academic point of view. I am a part of this site to learn more about the banjo. The banjo is now a part of my music curriculum and I want to make sure I pass on accurate information to my students. I love a good debate based on fact and lined with emotion.

As a human being who has not always been treated fairly I empathize with many concerns voiced by all parties. Please let me know if I new forum will be put in place.

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