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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Dan'l

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. 

THE TRUTH IS YOU DO NOT CARE ONE WHIT WHAT BLACK PEOPLE THINK,  YOU WANT TO FIND A WAY TO MAKE MINSTRELSY'S RACISM SEEM NICER AND YOU ARE APPALLED BY BLACK PEOPLE WHO RAISE THEIR VOICES AGAINST IT. 

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.

Nobody said the primary focus of Blackface minstrelsy should be its racism.  I have written here that this is not true.  However, no one wants to address the key questions made in my presentation and research. 

If you want to talk about academia,  I presented conclusions of a study that Harvard and Oxford University Press's dictionary of African American biography asked me to prepare that turned into a long term consultation with major experts on minstrelsy for months.  I presented conclusions for a presentation on this subject the primary gathering that discusses Banjo history asked me to present.

Unfortunately,  accuratem, researched discussion of racism in its context is troubling to a lot of white people and minstrel banjo seems to be a haven for white people who do not  agree with the general academic judgment about its racism, or about the general way Black people were treated in that period or even want to acknowledge what the leading figures associated with antebellum minstrelsy said it stood on thse issues.

The racial atmosphere and racial attitude that existed in antebellum Blackface minstrelsy made it unthinkable that a Black performed could have played a major role in it.  No one has addressed this.

Two Black performers have been mentioned Lane and Japanese Tommy.   Japanese Tommy masquaraded as a Japanese person, not a Black person.  Contemporary sources indicate Lane never participated in regular minstrel companies and theaters but at Barnum's museum and dances at bars. 

19th century witnesses to his performances indicate that Barnum did not believe his audiences could accept a Black performer as this was not accepted in the NY stage at his time or in minstelsy.  Lane was made up to look like a white person wearing Blackface and although he had African American hair, he was made to wear a whig that looked like he was w a white person imitating a Black person.

Does anyone here seen the massive inhumanity in this?  Does anyone venture to have any feelings about this what it must have felt like for Lane to have to try to make people think he was white to do this?



John Masciale said:

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.

Contemporary evidence suggest that Lane never performed in a regular minstrel company but only in bars etc and at Barnum's museum.  To work at Barnum's museum,  Barnum made Lane dress and make himself up to look like a white person trying to masquarade as a Black person because it was thought reprehensible for a  Black person to perform in this context.  Lane left the United States in disgust for England where he lived the ret of his life, being allowed to perform as a Black person, not  having to pretend he was white?

There were hundreds if not thousands of Black face minstrel entertainers.  NYC and Philiadelphia the center of its performances and where many if not most of its leading performers came from, had one of the largest Black populations of any city in the United STates,  and a larger percentage of Black peopke, free or enslaved than many southern cities. 

That you can only find one Black performer, and he who had to pretend he was white, speaks to the issue.  What is the reason for this?



Mark Weems said:

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

Tony, I have seen repeated references to Lane being the sole black performer with white minstrel groups.  Are you saying there is no truth to this?  I know he traveled in England with Pell's Ethiopian Serenaders.  I have all kinds of clippings from newspapers on his performance.

 

http://www.blackpast.org/aah/lane-william-henry-master-juba-1825-c-...

 

Regardless of whether he did or did not perform with whites, he is the exception.  Again, quoting from Inside the Minstrel Mask (this time Author Eileen Southern) " Black minstrel troupes appeared on the scene as early as the 1850s,  but understandably, it was not until after the Civil War that minstrel managers made serious attempts to exploit the talents of black entertainers by putting them on the commercial stage." p 164.   Ms. Southern does an excellent job in describing the difficulties experienced by black promoters of black performers. 

 

We also have to keep one thing in mind about minstrelsy, it was a business.  No work, no eat.   Certainly black performers in this business had to conform to white expectations in order to be widely acclaimed and accepted. The really hard question to ask is how do you break in to a system that is prejudiced against you? 

 

I have another question.  Is/was a "minstrel show" defined as always including blackface?  Did stage shows of the 1800's necessarily have blackface to be called a 'minstrel show' ?  Specifically, I'm wondering whether Black performers had their own shows going, with variety entertainment and performances aimed at black audiences, that did not include blackface?  This might loosely parallel the later race records and black film industry.  I would assume that any such Black entertainment shows would be more likely in areas of higher numbers of free blacks, and that they would have had little available funds for promotion, venues, and advertising.  Was 'the minstrel stage' limited to a white population, or is there evidence of informal Black entertainment shows going on for black audiences?

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