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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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.




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?

Minstrel shows were always in blackface, even when parodying Irish, Germans, and other ethnic groups.  They started out that way.  The use of the word "minstrel" is interesting.  Starting in the 1830s family singing groups such as the Tyrolese Minstrels became popular.  They sang European music in 4 part harmony.  When you look at a list of the groups performing, almost every other group had Minstrel in the name.  This was also the romantic era, and writers such as Sir Walter Scott had romanticized the days of yore and minstrels.  When the Virginia Minstrels came on the scene I believe that they chose the name in part to parody these other singing groups.  If you look at the sheet music for a lot of the songs you will see 4 parts, at least in the chorus.  Some performers tried to get away from black face, but the public expected to see people in blackface, it was the convention for the day. 

Other forms of stage performance such as these 4 part groups were not done in blackface.  Blackface performance was a lower class form of entertainment.  Through the 1840s the audiences were typically middle and lower class males.  In the 1850s as the minstrel shows changed the audience base expanded.  Even though the shows were witnessed by certain classes of people, the music from the shows was known by all classes.  Some distained it, and some loved it.  I have read accounts of grieving mothers complaining that their children were overheard singing Jim Along Josie.  But, if you look at the sheet music on sites like Lester Levy you can see that many of the songs were published and republished.  Different groups would take the same melody and put new lyrics to it, and then publish the song with new lyrics.  Advertising for the shows would also brag about new lyrics.

An interesting story I was told by a fellow reenactor was about a minister down south who had a largely black congregation, and he apologized to his congregation for going to a minstrel show.  He walked out in the middle of it.  I was asked why he felt the need to apologize. There are two reasons that I can give, first of course is the awful portrayal of African Americans, and second because often in the middle of the show a "sermon" would be given in black dialect.  I have read a number of these "sermons," and as someone attending seminary, and who regularly preaches I can tell you that my blood boils when I do so.  It is horribly offensive, and is meant to be so.

Starting in the 1830s family singing groups such as the Tyrolese Minstrels became popular.  They sang European music in 4 part harmony.  When you look at a list of the groups performing, almost every other group had Minstrel in the name.  This was also the romantic era, and writers such as Sir Walter Scott had romanticized the days of yore and minstrels.  When the Virginia Minstrels came on the scene I believe that they chose the name in part to parody these other singing groups.

John, are yo saying that these pre-Virginia Minstrels family type 'minstrel troupes' or singing groups calling themselves minstrels were not in blackface, then?

They named their groups minstrels, but did not call their shows minstrel shows.  They were not in blackface, although blackface performance was around, such as "Daddy" Rice and George Washington Dixon. 


Here is a partial list of some of those groups:

The Tyrolese Family Ranier (The Tyrolese Minstrels)
The German Minstrels
The Alpine Minstrels
The Euterpian Quartet
The Hughes Family
Ossian’s Bards
The Illsleys
The Boston Minstrels
The Alleghenians
The Hutchinsons

Thank you John.   :)

I find it interesting the heavy emphasis on 'Tyrolean/Swiss/German' in these very early singing groups.

A few years ago (when I was dabbling in yodeling..don't ask), I came upon this fascinating online article about early singing troupes and yodelers history, from generally around 1900-1920: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/b_yodel.htm

The article has some great information about African-American singers, performers, and then-famous Black YODELERS from that period, apparently performing and touring for both black and white audiences, in various venues and configurations.  That's why I was asking about whether there were all Black stage shows from before 1900 that catered to Black audiences.  Thanks for clarifying for me that although there were white singing groups early on calling themselves 'minstrel' groups, it didn't mean they were presenting 'minstrel shows' as we define it.  As I am understanding you to say then- and I want to get this straight- anything specifically called a 'minstrel show' from the 1800's definitely consisted of whites performing in blackface...is this correct?  Thanks!

I am also recalling the presentation at Antietam AEBG this year of opera parodies of the 1800's as being part of some minstrel shows.  It was interesting, but can anyone tell me whether those opera parody acts themselves were typically performed in blackface?  I was assuming not, but I don't recall if that was made clear or not during the presentation.  Or maybe some of the opera parodies were performed in blackface characters and others not?

Anything before the civil war.  After the civil war there were a number of African American minstrel groups, most notably the Georgia Minstrels.

John Masciale said:

Anything before the civil war.  After the civil war there were a number of African American minstrel groups, most notably the Georgia Minstrels.

John, sorry to bug you about these details, but I want to get it straight...

so then please correct me on these points if i have them wrong:

Anything specifically called a 'minstrel show' from before the CW always consisted of or included whites performing in blackface?

But one might sometimes find a "minstrel show" from after the CW that consisted entirely of, or featured, Black performers (uh, hopefully not required to be in blackface getups) ?

Did the Georgia Minstrels call their stage shows 'minstrel shows'...?

I guess I'm really just trying know if there ever were "minstrel shows" that did not include white painting themselves up as black and denigrating them.  Or did the very definition of 'minstrel show' necessarily always include racist 'blackface routines' ?

I'm a visual learner. Could we create a timeline of these findings? Does this exist?

At school we have what is called "dump your brain." Students are asked to write down all they know on a subject before beginning a unit of study. This would be a wonderful way to share knowledge and then pinpoint areas that need further study and debate.

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