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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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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