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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I have seen mention of black minstrel performers prior to the war in northern cities, however their audiences were largely black (not surprising).  You simply did not go to see black performers before that time.  I think this had a lot to do with the fact that performers had to travel to engage in their art, and it was highly dangerous, and often illegal for blacks to travel.  Making a living that way was simply not an option.

 

I completely agree that the depiction of blacks in minstrelsy had nothing to do with actual blacks, and that as time went on the depiction strayed farther and farther from the truth. The burnt cork makeup was also used as a mask to make reflections on society that a "white person" could not otherwise make.  We are oversimplifying.  Not everything in a minstrel show was about race.

(Why am I suddenly being reminded of Banjo-L   ? )

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

What the heck?-  Are you saying again Tony that there were NO black entertainers or performers at all until after the CW...?    Then how was it possible for minstrel music to be influenced by black music, black players and singers??  


Do you you know about the anti emancipation riots in NY or the massive three day "antidraft" pogrom against black people,  have you read any of the work of Shane White or Graham Russel Hodges or even Mahar,  have you read the real words to minstrel songs or songs like Oh Susana that were written about how "niggers" are stupid.     Do you know anything real about the lives of  Black people in the North during the cibil war a situation where Southeners chided them for antiblack segregation unknown in the South   

Do you sing the nigger and darkie words to all the minstrel songs and why do you think they are there, and would black people have sung them.  Dont you know anything about the real world or racism and life in this country


John Masciale said:

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.  

Tony, I have read most of those authors.  I have read virtually all of the books on the reference page of this forum.  I published a book of music from the era, including all of the original lyrics, because I believe it is necessary to see the racism of the time for what it was, and that it should not be white washed.  I have never performed in blackface, and I never sing the words darky or nigger unless it is to illustrate the racism of the time.  I am not defending the people of the time.  I am trying to engage in a dialog about better understanding the era.  And one further point, I did not have any ancestors here in the country at the time, so I have nothing to condemn or defend. 

In the massive literate about Africa Americans  I have read and written about for the past 50 years there is NOTHING about it being legal for free African Americans to travel and much record of the travels of Free  AfrcanAmericans who traveled in this periodl. REad in particular reference to entertainers Shane White "Stories of Freedom in  Black New  York" for example.

Read in particular White's discussion of the treatment of African Americans who attempted to perform even in all black and black own contexts in NYC in the period?

  White launches into this issue about minstrelsy's all white situation.   New York center of Black face  entertainment had one of the largest urban BLack populations in the US during this period, so lack participation there would have allowed no travel.

Why do you think most African American leaders and abolitionist supporters of Black freedom and contemporary analysts of minstrelsy including yourself denounced minstrelsy as racist and degrading?

What about the persistent violence that was the fate of African Americans just trying to engage in day to day life in NYC in the period?  

But you are making up stuff that is obviously untrue to try to explain away the racism of Black face minstrelsy and the racist atmosphere Blacks persisted in



John Masciale said:

I have seen mention of black minstrel performers prior to the war in northern cities, however their audiences were largely black (not surprising).  You simply did not go to see black performers before that time.  I think this had a lot to do with the fact that performers had to travel to engage in their art, and it was highly dangerous, and often illegal for blacks to travel.  Making a living that way was simply not an option.

 

I completely agree that the depiction of blacks in minstrelsy had nothing to do with actual blacks, and that as time went on the depiction strayed farther and farther from the truth. The burnt cork makeup was also used as a mask to make reflections on society that a "white person" could not otherwise make.  We are oversimplifying.  Not everything in a minstrel show was about race.



Strumelia said:

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

What the heck?-  Are you saying again Tony that there were NO black entertainers or performers at all until after the CW...?    Then how was it possible for minstrel music to be influenced by black music, black players and singers??  

First of all  it is not for me to answer this, but the fact that all the sources about Black face minstrelsy in the antebellum era and all the records I have been able to find about and everyone I have consulted who concetrates their life work about it and the various journal articles written about indicate that there were no Black performers in the general black face stage entertainment call minstrelsy other than Lane and Japanese Tommy.

So it is not for you to question me about it, but for you to get off your duff and read about the question and then write to the people who have documented it?

I didnt say everything about minstrelsy was about race and wrote that in writing in my selections.   But what there was about race was definitely racist and offensive to Black people and supporters of Black erights THEN AND NOW and the perpetrators of it made clear that they were on the side of slavery and the blocking of Black rights in a series of declarations wherever anyone questioned that.   This was int he context of a society in the North of massive violence against Black people.

In NY in the 1830s, for example,  it was standard for gangs of white youth to attack Black churches during Sunday services  throwing stones and bricks through the windows.  This was a normal thing to be expected,  with rarely any response from the police.

This is the real world.


Yes where I was attacked for being an "uppidity nigger" for asserting that the banjo's origins were Black where Ulf Jagfors and others received DEATH THREATS FOR DISSCUSSING HIS RESEARCH ON THE AFRICAN ANTECEDANTS OF THE BANJO.

uNFORTUNATELY THS IS WHAT WE FACE


Strumelia said:

(Why am I suddenly being reminded of Banjo-L   ? )

Again did you bother to read the major posts I submitted refuting the stupid idea that John Butler a minstrel banjoist who participated in many of the major minstrel companies from the 1850s until his death in 1864 and was a major banjoist in NYC in the trade was Black.   By in minstrelsy,  I spoke in regard to the major white companies and theater groups,  not separate operations that Black people organized.  In fact,  I mentioned the famous Philiadelphia Ira Alrdirdge company and their assertion that they were not "Picayune Butlers".  Douglass and others also mention Black attempts to set up entertainment of this character and the attempts of abolitionists to set up parallel companies.    BUT NONE OF THESE PEOPLE WERE ALLOWED ON THE MINSTREL STAGE AND the only mention of them in the discourse is there being attacked and derided as in the Clipper's discussion of the Philiadephia operation.

There might ahve been one or two Black entertainers somewhere in minstrelsy, and might have been ooutside NYC,  and may even have been such in southern states where the hostility to public black activity among the slave holders was actually less than in the North.

But this is the standard white argument.  Black people are segregated because they want to be away from white peopke,  not because white people in this siutation are excluding them, and are developing an instuition and approach at its core that is racist and offensive to them, centered on a depiction of African Americans that the reality of African American, indeed any human,  performance would overturn and destroy and conflict with.

All this is simply silly if you face what the music and the players were,  and how Black people reacted to it at the time and sense.   All of this is silly if you read the record of what Blacks who attempted to entertain on their own faced.

But racism is a reality not only then but now,  but it seems shocking to have to explain this in particular about pre Civil War life.   



John Masciale said:

I have seen mention of black minstrel performers prior to the war in northern cities, however their audiences were largely black (not surprising).  You simply did not go to see black performers before that time.  I think this had a lot to do with the fact that performers had to travel to engage in their art, and it was highly dangerous, and often illegal for blacks to travel.  Making a living that way was simply not an option.

 

I completely agree that the depiction of blacks in minstrelsy had nothing to do with actual blacks, and that as time went on the depiction strayed farther and farther from the truth. The burnt cork makeup was also used as a mask to make reflections on society that a "white person" could not otherwise make.  We are oversimplifying.  Not everything in a minstrel show was about race.

What has continued to shock me even though I have been at this stuff since the middle 1960s, is the persistent desire among white people who claim they oppose racism and support justice, to explain away things that Black people and white people actively concerned with justice, describe as racist and to justify it, minimize it or otherwise not understand the moral outrage of anyone who actively confronts it.  Basic evident facts about minstrelsy which are long accepted seem to be outrageous to purported enthusiasts of minstrel banjo.    My own research around this specific issue has disclosed a particular pattern of violence and offense to Black people in the environment of Blackface minstrelsy in Northern cities that shocked me after decades of work on this issue. 

But  as I wrote earlier,  some people would like to retreat into a world where only white voices speak,  where the kind of racism and denigration white Black face minstrelsy expressed throughout its lifetime, is kindly forgotten as just good clean fun and "entertainment,"  where the kind of every day violence that was the fate of Black people in the North before the Civil War didn't happen.

Unfortunately,  as a Black person and as an honest historian I cannot live in such a world.

@Strumelia.  When Tony says that none of the minstrel performers were African-American, that isn't the same as saying that there were no African-American performers.  Obviously, there were many performers--singing, banjo-playing, fiddling, dancing, etc., etc.--but not on the minstrel stage.  Their context of performance was in their own communities, where they could be heard by interested white musicians (including a few minstrel performers), and occasionally at dances where African-American fiddlers created distinctly American syntheses of West African bowed-lute tradition and Western European vernacular dance music.  That European-Americans had direct access to these African-American music communities apart from the minstrel shows is evident in the vigorous American banjo and fiddle traditions that evolved independent of the minstrel shows. 

In a peculiar twist of lingering racism in the study of American music, when I published my research on African-American banjo style being demonstrated in Gottschalk's "The Banjo," there was persistent resistance to my insistence that they publish the powerful Gwendolyn Brooks poem, "Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle" with my article, since she is the one who actually broke the story that Gottschalk's most interesting music was likely a virtual transcription of an unnamed Black banjo player (and she was kind enough to give me permission to do so).  No one could challenge the facts of my analysis, but they didn't like the "tone" of the poem.  We went 'round and 'round on this...finally I said that since no one was able to challenge me on the facts, it sounded like they had a "racism problem."  My article was in the next issue.  For years afterwards I would receive invitations to attend various conferences and so on that assumed I was African-American, which I found both flattering and disturbing.

BTW, I have found myself having to confront on several occasions a particular participant on this forum who insists on trying to derive a European origin for the banjo, determined to deny the overwhelming evidence of the instrument's West African origins.   It would be nice if this kind of nonsense would end...sigh...

Paul

Yeah OK Enough!, how about posting a song you like to play and share that. Kick this angry rhetoric on down the road. Or save it for a personal messages amongst yourselves. And yeah just like a bad TV show I can choose not to read it I suppose.  I read all this and my stomach is in a knot. This music whatever it's intent was back in the day invokes a sense of history, and has wonderful melodies and pleasant to play and listen to. The sordid past and what is lingering on into today is something else, and yes it came from that period etc... But perhaps that can be for a different forum. I thought this was about discovering the old music and the love of playing these instruments and recreating these songs, didn't realize there had to be a racial stigma related to it as well. I think I am done with this.

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