Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

John "Picayune" Butler (died 1864) was a black French singer and banjo player who lived in New Orleans, Louisiana. He came to New Orleans from the French West Indies in the 1820s. Butler had begun touring the Mississippi Valley performing music and clown acts. His fame grew so that by the 1850s he was known as far north as Cincinnati. In 1857, Butler participated in the first banjo tournament in the United States held at New York City's Chinese Hall but due to inebriation he only became second. Butler is one of the first documented black entertainers to have had an impact on American popular music. The blackface song "Picayune Butler's Come to Town", published in 1858, was named for him.

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Comment by Tony Thomas on August 13, 2013 at 12:02pm

Just to add to Carl's comment.  I am doing research on this for a presentation at the 2013 Banjo Collectors.  1)The probable Picayune Butler may have entertained in New Orleans abetween the 1820s and mid 1830s and may have entertained as far up as Cincinatti.  There is no trace of that person after around 1835, and even reports of this person's existence at all are marginal and non existent after 1835.   This we have from an 1860 article by T A Brown that got reprinted and reprinted for the next 60 or 70 years, as well as several post civil war recollections of butler, which may are may not be true at all.


2) In the mid 1840s the Picayune Butler Coming to town and other Pic Butler songs became among the most popular tunes in the United States not only in minstrelsy but in the general popular culture. 

It should be said that the song and the notion of Picayune Butler was so widely known and popular in the 1840s and 1850s, that anyone named Butler was likely to acquire that nickname.  A number of politicians in New York, Wisconsin, and other states, for example were nicknamed Picayune Butler.  The song was identified with the Democratic party and was a national campaign song in the 1840s and 1850s for several candidates.   The song was so widely known that newspaper writers writing about politics,  describing Italy, or discussing all sorts of non musical subjects might make reference to it and expect their reader to know it,


4)    The earliest recorded one was in 1848m but probably earlier a number of different banjo and circus entertainers can be found who adopted the name Pic Butler as part of single performances or were billed as such, 


5 John B, Butler who was from upstate NY who became a well-known banjo entertainer in NY area from the mid 1850s until his death in 1864 became known as Pic Butler and appeared as a banjo entertainer in NYC as "the original Picayune butler" probably to distinguish himself from several other NY banjoists who also peformed as picayune Butler.     T A Brown from whom we have our description of the original Butler wrote several biographical descriptions of minstrel and stage entertainers including John B Butler, but does NOT say this is the say Picayune Butler whom he describes as a "French" Black person active in New Orleans and the Ohio Valley by the 1830s who influenced T D Rice and George Nichols.

5.  During the Civil War the song became a major political issue as it was one of Lincoln's favorite songs and the pro slavery Democrats used Lincoln's affection for the song and request for it to essentially race bait Lincoln for liking a Black oriented song when white men were dying.


6.  Several Civil Warfigures named Butler acquired the nickname Picayune Butler.  The most famous was General Benjamin Butler who alledgedly received the Nickname during the occupation of New Orleans.  A popular Democratic politician in Lowell Massachusetts before the war,  he may have acquired the nickname before the occupation of New Orleans.


The way this song pervaded American popular culture North and South and seemed to inspire so many and inspired Pic Butler imitators is its greater significance,    It is also quite interesting insofar as contemporary Banjo heads tout our understanding of the origin of the Gourd banjo, when the song and discussion of Pic Butler points to that as the origin of banjo playing and presents a figure that was resonant with millions of people.

Anyone with the slimmest familiarity with 19th century minstrel entertainment and lifestyle or the facts could not possibly think that the person Converse describes as Pic Butler is Black or overlook the signs that the person performing in the 1857 NY Banjo contest as such as  Black etc etc etc.  It speaks to the pressures on Banjo thinking that at some point in the 20th or 21st century  this combination took place



Comment by Strumelia on August 13, 2013 at 3:26pm

Tim, loved this rendition.  That song has so much in it, something for everyone!   :)


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