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.

Views: 2742

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Yeah  just shove all the dirt under the corner.  I am a respected well published banjo historian who has been asked by Harvard and Oxford University Press's dictionary of biographical information to do a study on this issue.  I have spent much of real research about this issue and spent a week in the NY public library about it alone, though I live 1000 miles away.  I have been requested to present on this issue at the banjo gathering, the top event of the banjo world's discussion of its history.  I have consulted with major historians and players of minstrel banjo on this issue and spent a lot of time.  If the bad but real history of this and how that affected black people is unpleasant to you, then I guess lies and deceit or just covering over racism would make you much happier.

No one asked you to intervene in this corner.  I posted my conclusion for comment.  I should say I also sent out an edited version of those remarks the same day to a group of the world's leqading scholars of the banjo in general,  many of whom are considered major scholars of minstrel banjo.   I have no received a single comment in the hostile, covering over racism and denying reality type that the crew of people apparently nostalgic for the days when racism went un opposed.

Paul Ely Smith said:

@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. 

But the issue is that since the  mid 20th century, an outrageous idea contradicting all logic about race relations in America in general,  NY in particular, and minstrelsy in more particular has been perpetrated that a major figure in minstrel banjo was African American even though all documentary evidence available deeply contradicts it and defies the logic of real race relations at the time. 

The issue is not whether there were African American performers,  the issue is the nature of white antebellum minstrelsy and its relationship to African American.  The issue is also the reception and analysis of that  by African Americans in the period and by those who supported African Americans in the period and by every African American scholar who has examined the question in the century or two since then, and most non-African American scholars as well.     But these things have no meaning with many people here who inhabit the idea that minstrelsy was a nice thing in the buy gone days when Black people were not creating so much trouble with good clean fun and entertainment,.

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.


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.  You cannot prove that these innovations were made by any particular person of any particular ethnic group, but they in no way change the basic construction or function of the instrument.  I would be willing to guess that it was some European-American, J. W. Sweeney, possibly, who first replaced the gourd with a hoop, but it was a banjo before it got a hoop.  You are exactly who I tried to reference subtly, above.  I am done with arguing the point, since it is you who has the twisted logic and ignorance of the evidence.

I am glad to see you lay out your agenda, though.  Tony?!  Your turn with this guy. 

You are right, Nicholas--it is ultimately about the music, but it is this kind of stuff that is pretty irritating to those of us who have put a lifetime of research, study, and playing into early banjo music.  Tony may have an abrasive style on these pages, but with Dan'l around, I think we all can appreciate how it is easy to get a little impatient now and then.  Still, when racism rears its pernicious, ugly head, it must be confronted for what it is. 

Any more uncivil rants will be deleted.  Debate is fine, and disagreeing on key points is also fine.   Let's save anything beyond that for the pissery.

In the Sanctified Brethren church, a tiny fundamentalist bunch who we were in, there was a spirit of self-righteous pissery and B.S.ification among certain elders that defied peacemaking.  They were given to disputing small points of doctrine that to them seemed the very fulcrum of the faith.  We were cursed with a surplus of scholars and a deficit of peacemakers, and so we tended to be divisive and split into factions.  Garrison Keilor

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 is a lot of research going on.  You are right about definitions and semantics.  I would define a banjo has having a flat finger board and tuning pegs for tensioning the strings.  Under that definition the first examples showed up in the Caribbean.  Could something like that have existed in Africa first?  Maybe, but I haven't seen any evidence to that point, and more importantly, why did such an instrument, with its advantage not survive to more recent times, while instruments like the ekonting, ngoni, etc. have?


There is an obscure but very interesting early 20th-c. psychologist named Lev Vygotsky who made the point that in the absence of information, information will be invented to fill the need for it.  If the banjo is defined as a hoop-bodied instrument and five strings with a skin head that is tightened with a tension hoop and brackets, and tuning pegs, well then, there you go.  If that's what it takes to call it a "banjo" then that obviously happened in America, even though there is simply not enough evidence to show who made the first one with those particular elements.  However, the fact remains that instruments were called banjos before they had these elements.  In the absence of specific information, Tony can see the "original" in a can-bodied Caribbean instrument or Dan'l can insist it didn't exist until a white minstrel cooked up the whole deal.  Maybe to a bluegrasser, it isn't a banjo until it gets a resonator and a tone ring.  Their respective choices reflect their personal agendas in choosing the information they choose to highlight, because all of us must fill in the invented/missing information we will never have.  These agendas can reflect unpleasant assumptions that I would rather not go into right now.  The tuning pegs--OK, that's European, but who thought of adapting them to the (obviously) West African form?  We don't know--WE DON'T KNOW, but West Africans haved tuned for centuries just fine without 'em, so that cannot be presented as a fundamental change in the instrument any more than brackets fundamentally changed the instrument.  And since Bassekou Kouyate decided that little mechanical tuners make his ngoni easier to tune, did he turn his ngoni into a banjo?  I sure wouldn't be the one to tell him he isn't playing ngoni anymore.  The configuration of strings (with a drone string at the top for the thumb), the skin-headed body (either a gourd or a hollowed-out piece of wood), the methods of playing--these are West African; there can be no meaningful debate on this point, as there is no lack of evidence to prove this.  I called them banjos because instruments with only these features were called banjos (banjars, banzas, whatever) in North America (get out your Dena Epstein, kids...) before the minstrels were ever on a stage.  This is documented evidence, and thus is not invented by people with agendas.  They are the design brought here, strings added, fingerboard flattened to accommodate them, tuning pegs added to make them easier to tune, etc., but the elements that make the instrument distinct from any European lute (guitar, cittern, mandolin, vihuela...) are West African.  Period.       

Paul, play nice.  Da'l repeatedly stated that African Americans invented the banjo.  It is not necessary to insult him by misquoting him.  What is the difference between a guitar and a bass ukulele ?  One has a different number of strings, but the body shape etc. is the same.  You can trivialize these differences, but to my mind these semantics make a difference in the way the instrument is considered and played.  I would call the instrument in The Old Plantation a banjo.  It is not anything else, and it certainly predates the minstrel stage and minstrel performance.  The word banjo was also in use at that time.


I couldn't have misquoted Dan'l, since I didn't quote him at all, but fair enough--I mischaracterized and over-simplified his posts on this particular thread, mea culpa, but here is a direct quote of his from 2/24/13 on this site...I believe the topic was "Balkan Banjo," where he was making the argument that "2/3" of the banjo's characteristics were not West African...

"...it could also, and equally, and fairly, be said that the fact 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"


I have been involved in the highest level of research on the origins of the banjo and have access to the most authoritative and recent published work and what John writes above  is eactly right.  Banjos were first reported in the Caribbean in the 1600s.  No indigenous West African instrument possesses tuning pegs and a flat finger board.   

Most researchers of banjo roots in West African started with the idea, say 20-30 years ago that banjos might have originated in West Africa and migrated to the New World, but none of these researchers believes that now even though we have much more information about West African musical instruments than we had even in the 1990s.   Banjos originated in the New World, probably in the Caribbean or someplace real close.   


Last year Gerhard Kubrik showed me the chapter of a new book he is writing about Jazz in Africa with a chapter on banjos in Africa and every instance of banjos in Africa either manufactured or product of folk making is obviously a product of European or North American banjoists spreading the banjo to Africa.  Even the most primitive folk made models from the distant past incorporate innovations produced by the spread of the commercial banjo industry in the mid 19th century and have no links to early banjos or to the West African instruments that  prefigured them.   Banjo Entertainers reached South Africa by the 1860s and others reached areas in West Africa in the late years.

30 years ago it was a viable idea that banjos originated in Africa, but people doing the serious work now discount that.  It is certainly true that early banjos show a distinct lineage to West African approaches to instrument making .

Around the turn of the century some people developed the wrong idea that one or another instrument was essentially a pre-banjo brought here and slightly modified.  The Ngoni and Xalam followed by the akonting were objects of this treatment, but our knowledge and examination of Early banjos as well as our expanded of the range of West African instruments, indicates, no such thing exited, that there are so many different instruments from West Africa who prefigure the banjo in some way on one side, and that banjos by identity have features introduced from European influence.

The other idea people started with was that banjos might have originated in Creolized areas of Central Africa or on islands under Spanish or Portuguese control off the African coast.  Again 30 years ago that was reasonable for people to explore, but exploration of the musical instrument traditions of the Africans inhabiting such areas lead to no links with the type of instruments that prefigured the banjo

Reply to Discussion



John Masciale created this Ning Network.

© 2020   Created by John Masciale.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service