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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There were  African American minstrel groups before the civil war, but they were not mainstream, were not advertised, were not welcome in commercial theatres.  They could not possibly earn a living doing minstrel shows, so I guess in that sense you would call them amateur.  Anything before the civil war that you went to a theatre to see calling itself a minstrel show would be white performers dressed in blackface.


After the civil war African American minstrel troupes were commercially viable.  They did not have to wear burnt cork makeup like William Henry Lane (Juba) had to when he first got started.  They did call their shows minstrel shows because the minstrel show was a genre of entertainment. 

John Masciale said:

There were  African American minstrel groups before the civil war, but they were not mainstream, were not advertised, were not welcome in commercial theatres.  They could not possibly earn a living doing minstrel shows, so I guess in that sense you would call them amateur.  Anything before the civil war that you went to a theatre to see calling itself a minstrel show would be white performers dressed in blackface.

After the civil war African American minstrel troupes were commercially viable.  They did not have to wear burnt cork makeup like William Henry Lane (Juba) had to when he first got started.  They did call their shows minstrel shows because the minstrel show was a genre of entertainment. 

This answers my questions very clearly. Thank you John!   :)

since I wrote the above a few more things along the same lines have become true.

In further years of research the evidence about the existence of a Black Picayune Butler in New Orleans has remained somewhere between slim and non-existent.  It is quite possible Picayune Butler was a figment of 19th century Blackface popular culture like Dandy Jim from Caroline or Chief Gumbo Chaff.

The idea perpetrated by T. Allston Brown that George Nichols had anything to do with Picayune Butler and was an original source of Jim Crow is completely incorrect. 

It is dubious that the passage frequently quoted  as proving this means this.  More likely, particularly if you are familiar with both Nichols and Brown, it means that Nichols was the first in the circus to perform "Jim Crow,"  although as we shall see this was dramatically wrong.    Anyway, Brown had no reputation for factual analysis in his writing,  He is well known by theater historians for being inaccurate, stupid, and just plain wrong on most issues.

We know as a fact that T.D. Rice began performing his Jim Crow dance and song and characterization in the spring of 1830, culminating in a benefit performance in June 1830 in Louisville where he performed four versions of Jim Crow.  We know that Rice made a hit performing this song in Louisville and Cincinnati and thereabouts that summer, but was itching to find bookings for himself as a solo act at higher pay given his hit performances.  We know that for a month or so in the fall of 1830, he quit the theater company he was in and joined Purdy Brown's circus of the West,  as it passed through the Ohio Valley and no doubt performed his hit performance of Jim Crow with them before wangling a better deal with another theater company that was to take him to the East Coast and national and international stardom.

George Nichols' first performnances of Jim Crow came in March 1831 in New Orleans in the same circus.  It is fairly obvious that he was performing the song that Rice had made a hit with, than he learned from Rice, replacing Rice as Rice was going off to the East Coast.   

Brown could not have talked to Nichols--he might have as Brown was a stage hand in the circuses before trying his hand as a theatrical agent and promoter before he made a hit selling long disorganized articles on anything he could think of as theatrical and circus history to the Clipper which eventually hired him--until the 1840s, being generous if we accept perhaps Brown had joined the circus as a teenager, but perhaps until the 1850s.  George Nichols seemed in the habit to have produced and written all sorts of Blackface songs that historians have discovered were created by others. 

This was typical early 19th century showmanship where entertainers claimed they wrote every song they performed.  Even in classical music in New York City major elite Episcopal churches and the Catholic Cathedral had performances of masses falsely attributed to Mozart, that were fraudulent products of American and European counterfeiters.

Trying to build himself up, Nichols hardly would have told Brown or everyone that he learned Jim Crow because he had been asked to replace Rice in the same Circus.  Rather,  he took the standard course of white minstrels who claimed they learned tunes from Gumbo Chaff,  Dandy Jim and all sorts of spurious fictional sources, and claimed he learned the tune from Picayune Butler.

How little TA Brown actually knew or cared about the issue is expressed in the article he wrote on this first printed in 1860, but relentelessly reprinted and plagiarized by the Clipper for the next eighty years, that he thought the Picayune Butler song was "Picayune Butler is Going Away,"  a title or verse for the sound no one else has every found despite scores of published sheet music versions and a greater number of folk collection.

Brown produced an overflowing volume of writing in the fall of 1860 and in 1861 appearing in the Clipper while Brown lived in Philadelphia and was looking for work as a theatrical agent (he advertised as looking for such work in each issue).    Very much of it is pretty laughable, not that standards of research existed, or that the Clipper was known as an accurate source of detailed historical knowledge, or that in general 19th century newspapers sought to be the source of objective truth.

John Butler's story is pretty interesting as he seems to be a precursor of folks like Converse who wanted to separate banjo performance into an art and entertainment field of its own, beyond minstrel delineation, and made several attempts to launch himself as a solo act as a banjoist outside of minstrel troupes working in concert saloons and circuses and was a active participant in banjo contests

After a year mnore of research,  my firm conclusions are that  "   

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."is utterly untrue.

This idea and those that echo it are based on the erroneous statments of one T. Allston Brown.

Brown's assertion is backed by no evidence.  On the other hand lots of real evidence exists that Rice began rehearsing the song in late 1829 and early 1830 began performing it in Kentucky in the spring of 1830, had a massive hit with it by May in 1830, and was performing it throughout the Ohio Valley through 1830.

Rice never had visited New Orleans or met up with Nichols.  This is quite tightly documented insofar as the show Rice worked with was supposed to merge with Purdy Browns Circus where Nichols worked, but did not and went there separate ways across 1829 and 1830.

Fueled by his success with Jim Crow, Rice tried to go out as a separate act, and likely was demanding more money from the theater he was in, and as part of this joined Purdy Brown's Circus in the early fall of 1830, performing his hit song and dance Jim Crow there.

He ultimately got a better offer with another theater and left to eventual stardom in the East by November 1830.  Rice never visited New Orleans until 1834.  When he did, he paid tribute to the Black Banjoist Old Corn Meal.  If he had been inspired to write his hit from Picayune Butler, he would have paid tribute to him, but he did not.   Like most minstrels, he sought black attribution to his songs, and invented several stories about how he had learned Jim Crow from African Americans.  He certainly would have created a clear and embellished story had he learned the song from Picayune Butler,  But he did not.

Nichols performed Jim Crow in Purdy Brown's circus after Rice left, with our first notice of that being in March 1831, a year after Rice had been performing the songas a hit in the Ohio Valley and months after Rice had performed it in the same circus.

Unfortunately,  many people place some credence in a quotation from writer, theater and circus promotor, T. Allston Brown who mentions this first in an 1860 article he wrote for the Clipper which was relentlessly reprinted by the Clipper and other publications into the 20th century.  Brown who was 29 at the time, claimed he learned this from Nichols.  Nichols' heyday as a performer was in the 1820s and 1830s when he probably passed a way (ANYONE WITH A DEATH DATE FOR NICHOLS PLEASE WRITE ME),  SO  Brown's claim about Nichols refers to events Brown might have known about directly only if he had spoken to Nichols when he Brown was 8 or 9 at the eldest.

Brown was no historian but a stage hand who worked his way up and was a major promoter for circuses and theater.  In fact among theater historians he is renown for his inaccuracy and his errors.

Nichols himself is rather well known for having claimed to have written a number of ministrel songs that others have written or that folklorists have shown are folk songs  That is hardly novel since the whole sweep of minstrelsy was claiming Black sources for the music, even for tunes and songs we now know originated in English popular music, Opera, or European American folk music.   It would be very un minstrel like for Nichols to claim he performed Jim Crow to replace Rice who had quit the circus they both worked for, but to invent a ficticious Black source for it.

A year more of research work and there seems to be almost no factual references to the existence of a Black Picayune Butler that are not echoes of Brown's statemen.   A member of this blog produced a clipping from a Cincinnati newspaper claiming to be memories of Picayune Butler.  Several years of research in old newspapers showed this piece was a standard piece reprinted in Newspapers int he Mississippi and Ohio Valleys usually along with memories of equally ficticious characters like Mike Fink and Gumbo Chaff.

In contrast Henry Kmen researched for years in New Orleans newspaper archives in English an French and only found one article with a reference to "old Butler" to claim anything of Butler.

I very highly recommend R. H, Lhamon's two books about T.D. Rice which provided the basis for my figuring out the Rice and thus the Brown issue, even though Lhamon wrote believing Brown's statement.  He has since acknowledged his error int his matter. 

There may or may not have been a Picayune Butler as a black performer in New Orleans.  No one has produced any evidence that he existed and that he was not a fictional product of the culture of Black face minstrelsy like Dandy Jim of Caroline or  Johnny Booker.

I would like to believe he existed but as a critical historian, I cannot.   What is interesting is the way non critical wishful thinking rather than critical historical analysis pervades the banjo-folk-black music world instead of science

Tony,  It's too bad that your research took you to a dead end.  I was hoping that a real Picayune Butler would appear in the historical record in the first quarter of the 19th century.   But then just maybe this young fellow made it all the way down to New Orleans: 



You showed me  this document about two years ago and others have referred to it.  And I recently looked at it again in the context of Bob's wonderful piece about runaway slave ads and again in my daily perusal of old news papers.

There is absolutely no connection between this and Picayune Butler other than his name being Butler.  If Picayune Butler existed, his real name was probably NOT Butler, but some Francophone like name, as he was probably from Haiti, Martinique (seems mentioned the most), or Guadeloupe NOT Pennsylvania.

What seems very troublingn to me about this is the vast array of wishful thinking and uncritical thought that allowed anyone to think the whole legend as propounded elsewhere.  Nobody in the 19th century could have possible thought a Black person could be a major performer in major minstrel companies as a banjoist.  Converse explains in his memoirs how Black banjoists were excluded from banjo competitions until the 1880s or so (maybe 70s).

I didnt come to a dead end.  It is only a dead end if you think the task is to perpetuate legends based on the unrealistic thinking of people who want romantic notions of minstrelsy to cover over the harsh racial realities that minstrelsy left.  It is only a dead end if evidence is unimportant to you, and if you do not consider your work to understand reality and history, not to construct fictions.

What I did find as a real dead end was the vociferous and furious level of hatred and invective I received here when I pointed out that with one or two exceptions, Black people were excluded from antebellum, Blackface minstrelsy and that the racist cultural message it produced  was the opposite of what Black performance was, and contrasted completely with the rising militancy among African Americans who were not enslaved in the antebellum, North.

Wow, Tony.  I'm sorry.  I was just trying to be a friend.   Best of luck with your project.   Bob

One insight  concerns Brown's 1860 statement about Nichols first performing Jim Crow.

It has largely been taken as meaning that Brown believed Nichols first sang Jim Crow in performance.  However, there is another way of that fits much better, especially the more I know about Brown.  

What Brown may have meant is that Nichols was the first person in the circus to perform the song Jim Crow, or claimed that.  Of course, this is not true,  We know that T.D. Rice performed "Jim Crow" in the same circus that Brown worked in during the fall of 1830 before Nichols 1830 performance.   But Nichols nevertheless may have made this claim or tried to puff up the rumor.

Still another way of reading it in context is that Brown meant Nichols first performed the song as a clown in a circus before anyone else did.  That is undoubtedly true, since we know Rice did his Jim Crow performances in a "cornfield negro" costume, whereas Nichols was known as a clown.

I owe a great conversation I had on this issue with Cece Conway for strengthening this insight.

Once gain, it raises the whole question, not so much about 19th century minstrelsy and banjo playing, but about the degree to which 20th and 21st century music scholars, music enthusiasts,  latch onto something that fulfills there desires for a myth no matter how totally the evidence indicates otherwise.

It is quite interesting that According to the Clipper Blacks in Philadelphia who put on a minstrel show in 1863 greeted a white observer who felt they didn't respect him properly by shouting "We arent your Picayune Butlers!"

History involves trying to understand how differently things were from what we understand and experience today.  The racism in the North in the 19th century that was expressed in minstrelsy wasn't a joke or wasn't just an attitude. 

It was reflected in regular every day terror against Black people in cities like New York  and Philadelphia.  The five-points bar where Dickens depicted Juba dancing was destroyed by a mob of white B'hoys who attacked because they believed Black people shouldn't run such establishmnents.  New York's Black population declined from the 1850s to the 1860s because it was deemed such an unfriendly place for Black people and because of the prevalence of slave catchers and the mounting segregation and anti black job discrimination,

History is real

Just one more point.  Brown's context in 1860 when he wrote this was the circus.  he had worked as a hand in circuses since he was a teenager.  He had graduated from hand to advance man and financial manager for circuses. 

  He was apparently out of work and looking for a position, and seemed to have found some support by writing these huge articles for the clipper.  The minstrelsy article was only one of a series of histories of all kinds of theatrical and circus performances from ancient times on, bios of well known actors like Keane, Boothe, and so on that he wrote. 

In the same issue of the Clipper that he sold this story about minstrelsy as for almost every issue for the next year or two, he is advertising for a position as an agent for circus performers,  He seems to have caught on by the mid 1860s when you see more notices about circus, minstrel, and other performers whom he represents as an agent.  It seems only in the late 1860s or 1870s does he make a transition to being a theatrical agent, promoter, booker, and I think producer.   His transition to being the "Theatrical Editor" of the Clipper  seems to  have combined his own promotional work with puffery of his own acts and the usual castigation of competitors.

It is  a bit funny to me that in the world of theatrical history you read words like "unreliable," and "untrustworthy" cast his way.  One major literary historian wrote that Brown's theatrical history's  must have been "proofread by a blind man" and castigated another drama historian for wasting time presenting arguments why Brown's information was wrong, when one should simply assume Brown was wrong throughout.

But the guy was just trying to make a buck, doing what he can.

Tony, I forgot that I showed you the ad in the past.  Of course, it's beyond improbable that a fugitive slave in Pennsylvania or Maryland would have traveled SOUTH to freedom except maybe to a large population center like Baltimore or Washington, D.C.  And I fully appreciate that runaway slave ads speak to very serious matters.  But, in light of the Picayune Butler tale, I have to admit that the trickster-like description of an "artful" banjo-playing runaway named Nathan Butler caused me a momentary smile. 

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