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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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...

Tony.

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.

However.

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.

:)

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?

 

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 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

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...

Tony.

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.

However.

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.

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