Picayune Butler

One of the more intriguing figures in the history of the banjo in Louisiana is Picayune Butler. In Phil Rice’s Correct Method for the Banjo: With or Without a Master, published in 1858, there is a song celebrating Butler. The verses go as follows:

 

I come to town dis very day

And brought my banjo long to play

Yah ha, I raise my notes to such a sound

Dat it clear’d my heel right off the ground

Yah ha

Picayune Butler’s comin, comin

Picayune Butler’s comin, comin

Picayune Butler’s come to town . . .

2

About some twenty years ago,

Old Butler reigned wid his old Banjo

Ah, ah.

Twas a gourd, three string’d, and an old pine stick,

But when he hit it he made it speak,

Ah, ah.

3

Picayune Butler gwine to rise

And meet his friends up in de skies

Ah, ah,

Some thing else am mighty true

De Banjo gwine be dar too,

Ah, ah.

 

14 Replies to “Picayune Butler”

  1. Dear Satoshi: Thank you for sharing that information — that is extremely interesting! Do let us know if you have any other information about banjo performances in Japan…

    — Laurent Dubois

  2. I had been asked to do a biographical entry on “Picayune Butler” for Harvard and Oxford UP’s African American biographical dictionary about one month ago. I began to look into standard “sources” about Butler, with nos pecial knowledge of him.

    I found a narrative that Butler was a Black New Orleans banjoist who began in the 1820s or 1830s and supposedly continued becoming a star of the minstrel stage becoming a mentor to Frank Converse, and participating in the famous October 1857 banjo contest in NYC. Some of these accounts claim this person was the same as John B. Butler who died in 1864.

    Research into this shows this unprobable narrative–if you are familiar with the all white nature of AnteBellum minstrelsy with few exceptions, is completely untrue.

    There may have been a Black banjoist in New Orleans in the 1820s and perhaps 1830s named Picayune Butler who may have performed as far up as Cincinnati. Rice–Jim Crow Rice–and a Black face Circus performer named George Nichols claimed they did learn several songs from him including the Picayune Butler Coming to town and perhaps Jim Crow. There are also a set of “memoirs” of him from the late 1860s and early 1870s in various newspapers similar enough to be one plagiarized story, that put him around in the 1820s. Kmen speaks briefly of hi in his “Music in New Orleans” although his only direct source is a mention of a banjoist referred to as “old Butler” around 1830 in the Advertiser.

    Be that as it may in the 1840s the Butler song became a very popular song on the minstrel stage and probably beyond. For example, I have found an 1845 notice from a Baltimore Bookstore announcing the arrival of the “Picayune Butler Songster” for sale. The tune seems to have been one of the most popular offered by minstrel companies like Christie’s etc etc.

    The Butler song itself became a national hit between by the 1840s, so that newspaper accounts on non musical issues in Northern newspapers might allude to the song as if the average reader knew it. In the 1840s and 1850s the tune seems to have been identified with the Democratic party, although in the 1864 election the Democrats tried to make an issue of Lincoln’s affection for the song in a racist manner in regard to continuing the war. But again the implication is that the song was so widely known in popular culture that the general public would know what was being referred to as the Picayune Butler song.

    What happened was that in the wake of the popularity of the song and the image it created of a Black four string banjoist–even SS Stewart uses Picayune Butler as his symbol of such a banjoist–minstrel entertainers began to portray Butler as a character, probably first in performing the song, and later announcing they were Picayune Butler.

    There are at least three individuals, all white minstrels, whom I am pretty sure I can document use this as a stage name, two in NYC in the late 1850s and at least to 1862, and one in 1848 in Cincinnati in Circuses., so much that the most well recorded (on sources I have found so far) one John B. Butler who apparently marketed himself as “The Original Picayune Butler” at least from 1857 to his death in 1864. He did participate in the 1857 banjo contest.

    It is probably he whom Converse speaks. How anyone familiar with Converse’s memoir could possibly think the Pic Butler he refers to as an early teacher and whom he refers to in relation to the banjo contest in 1857 and other issue was Black defies my imagination. Converse is very racially concerned, designating who is and is not Black every time he mentions a Black person and speaking in several passages about Black banjoist as opposed to white. Converse always follows the convention unfortunately standard in racist society of describing Black people as being Black whereas others require no racial designation. Right after discussing the 1857 banjo contest and Pic Butler’s participation therein, Converse goes on to claim (incorrectly) that Blacks were banned from all banjo contests he knew of until one he mentions in 1884 involving CP Stinson sentences after he discusses the 1857 contest and the Pic Butler he claims he saw as the first professional banjoist he met back in Elmira, met him by having this butler smack him in the face!

    I am continuing to work on nailing this all down and will probably make a presentation on this at the Banjo Gathering (formerly known as the banjo collectors gathering) this November in Knoxville and probably write an article or more,

    Besides getting the facts rights, what is interesting is the extent of popularity of the song and minstrelsy and the image of a Black pre minstrel banjo and its resonance in American popular culture. Whoever the original Pic Butler was in New Orleans, what he did probably resonated, or what white performers like Nichols and Rice could conjure up about him in this and other songs had resonance and perhaps reflects the resonance of African American busking banjoists.

    What it also speaks about is the slipshod nature of much 20th and 21st century writing that passes for banjo scholarship that has conflated the original banjoist and Converse’s Pic Butler.

    No 19th century source claimed the 1850s and 1860s Pic Butler was Black which would have been remarkable and contradicted everything we know about minstrel and variety entertainment at the time.

    Indeed, the main 19th Century source we have about the New Orleans butler, NY theatrical writer T.A. Brown who is our chief source about Nichols and Butler describing Butler as a Black banjoist from the French Caribbean known once in New Orleans and the Ohio Valley, also comments several times about John B. Butler who died in 1864 including in a biographical list of minstrel entertainers, but never says he was Black. Brown, printed his basic description of the Black butler and his relationship with Nichols first in an 1860 article on the history of Minstrelsy in The Clipper, a paper that carried notices about John B Butler or “the original Picayune Butler” but never says this is the John B. Butler then performing. Brown reprinted the same information about Butler a number of times under a variety of titles but never ever said this.

    Actually, Rice’s claims and what Brown says about Nichols are the only sources we have about the original Butler directly unless you want to accept Kmen’s statement that a reference to “old Butler” must be to Picayune Butler. All other sources mentioning this go back to Brown.

  3. The minstrel show Perry’s sailor put on in Japan was the subject of a full article with reproductions of these prints in the online Journal Common Ground sometime last year. I will email you (Laurent) a PDF of the article offlist. A full presentation on this minstrel show and its background and a slide presentation of these prints was presented at the Banjo Gathering last year (2012) at Ferrum College. I believe the presenter–not one of the usual suspects-said he was at work on an article or book on this.

  4. I forgot rather famously General Benjamin Butler, the Union general who was the occupier of New Orleans was tagged with the nickname Picayune Butler. There are a rash of accounts claiming that this nick name was given to him by the pro-Confederate population of New Orleans who hated him, or that it had to do with his unfamiliarity with the song. Indeed, the song seems to have been so popular that anyone named Butler particularly associated with Black people or music in some way might have picked up this nickname in the 1850s or 1860s.

    However, the more I look at 1861 newspapers and records Butler may have picked up this nickname before he arrived in New Orleans. It may have to do with his association with Black “contrabands” (Butler’s phrase) in Virginia earlier in the war, since there may be some mention of him in 1861 newspapers as such before his arrival in new Orleans. Then again, it may have something to do with the fact that Butler was a Democratic politician if a strong anti-slavery man and proworking class man from the factory town of Lowell Mass and the song seems associated with the Democratic party in the 1850s.

    But again, the widespread popularity of the song is such that anyone well known might easily acquire this as a nickname.

    ANYONE WITH REAL INFORMATION ON THE NEW ORLEANS PICAYUNE BUTLER OR WHO CAN ASSIST ME IN RESEARCH ON THIS IN NEW ORLEANS PLEASE CONTCT ME

  5. Satoshi: what information do you have that the Picayune Butler song was played by Perry’s minstrels. We have the program for their shows and it is available on the MIT site with this information and that song is not on the list. What source tells you that this song was played.

    It certainly could have been played as it was one of the most popular songs in minstrelsy and had a circulation beyond minstrelsy. Moreover, politically the song was identified with the Democratic party which was the government party when Perry arrived.

    But I am doing a presentation on Butler for the banjo gathering leading to a longer documented piece, and I started to include the fact that it had been played by these minstrels when I cross checked on the available sources and the playbill. The playbill for the minstrel show is pretty professional and follows all of the conventions you would have seen in a professional minstrel playbill in a big NY theater for the period.

  6. after spending about 4 months getting deeper and deeper into this and spending long hours in libraries and consulting experts not only on minstrelsy but on the fate of African Americans in the places where minstrelsy was centered and African American performers in particular, the more decisive thing about the Butler issue is the way that 20th century fanciers of African American music and banjo enthusiasts, jumped on a band wagon that the New Orleans legendary Black banjoist could have possibly played in major Black face minstrelsy companies, or been the person Converse refers to, or be the same as John Butler who died in 1864.

    It isnt just the shoddiness of the research easily refuted by the most pertinent 19th century sources, but the total disregard for the antiBlack character of white blackface minstrelsy that precluded African Americans from performing. Minsstrelsy centered on the “delineation” not of real Black people and their culture, but of an image of Black people that was a codification of racist denigration of AFrican Americans and the creation of a creature serving a variety of needs of those who adjusted well to the racism of antebellum society and the inhumanity of Black people. The appearance of real Black people was not only offensive to whatever dignity they had and the expressed sensibilities of most Black observers of the time, but a real contradiction to the racist image minstrelsy created of Black people.

    In fact, there are reports of how troupes involving freed slaves were toured after the civil war to venues expecting what minstrelsy provided, whose audiences were offended by what real Black people did and demanded what white minstrelsy offered instead.

    Moreover, the level of segregation and physical violence and intimidation that was the general lot of Black people in Northern cities, especially NYC, and the particular hostility to Black performers on the stage would have made such a thing either impossible or such a freak occurance that it would be well recorded.

    The two now Black performers in antebellum minstrelsy both had to masquerade the fact that they were Black. William Lane/Master Juba did perform with several companies in the mid 1840s before leaving in disgust for England. Yet, contemporary observers noted that Lane made himself up and wore a wig to LOOK LIKE A WHITE PERSON IMITATING A BLACK PERSON, because audiences found the presence of an actual Black person objectionable.

    The real issue seems to be how 20th century desires for Black authentication of white minstrel banjoists leapt over the realities of racism and exclusion that real African Americans faced in antebellum society.

  7. forgot to mention that the only other “Black” performer besides Lane in organized antebellum Minstrelsy was a guy called “Japanese Tommy.” He was an African American dwarf who masqueraded as a Japanese person.

    Antebellum Black face minstelsy wasn’t about people who simply enjoyed or were influenced by Black culture. It defined itself and its audience accepted and desired a definition that related to a racist denigration and exclusion of African Americans.

    People with illusions about the North should read 19th century commentary by Southern visitors who were shocked at the level of segregation, violence, and restrictions on African Americans in cities like NYC that could not have been imagined in cities like New Orleans or Richmond

  8. Correction. There are 2 different programs. The program you posted on the Ning Minstrel Banjo site has Picayune Butler as the first song. That is great because I am thin on graphics for my presentations and we can use this. You do not have any documentation where you foudn that program on the Ning site, and I am producing a documented pice for Harvard and Oxford UP’s and I dont do un documented stuff so if you can post the refs for this that would be very helpful.

  9. Dear Tony: Sorry for my slow response to all these contributions on Butler. This is all extremely useful — thanks for the link on the Japan piece as well. I agree with you that these are two different figures, and am currently trying to find out as much as I can about the New Orleans player who is said to be from the French West Indies, as getting a better bearing on his role seems key. I think between the few sources we have and placing them in context of theatre and performance in early nineteenth-century New Orleans performance culture we can learn quite a bit. It’s very helpful to make sure we make the distinction between him and the later players who took on his name because of the popularity of the song. Thanks for your work on this and your contributions here!

  10. without going beyond what do not want to say before I sally forth in print, much of what has been said about Picayune Butler dissolves in the face of serious critical research and documentation. For example, the assertion some make that he taught white minstrels the song “Jim, Crow” falls apart once we examine the record. This is very much the case of 20th century music historians of all stripes buying into unclear writing confusing John Butler with Picayune Butler in Monarches of Ministrelsy and then creating a web connecting things critical examination of the evidence would not connect. I will be giving a presentation on the broader question of Butler, Black Peformance and antebellum minstrelsy at the Antietam Early Banjo Gathering in June and will keep folk posted on plans for more complete publication on this issue. Banjo research really needs to be transformed from a side hobby to serious concentrated work using the tools and standards the academy has developed to research parallel issues. The second issue is to develop real exchange and channels for critical review among people really doing the work because there are so many fluffy airy cobwebs that get in the way of real understanding.

  11. After some time off after the Early Banjo Gathering, I am back on the trail of Picayune Butler.

    The search began in the spring of 2013 when Oxford University Press asked me to write a biographical piece on Picayune Butler to African American Autobiography a database of biographical material they and Harvard’s W.E.B. Dubois Center maintain, followed by work for a presentation on this issue at the November 2013 Banjo Collectors Gathering in Knoxville, followed by a presentation on this issue at this year’s Early Banjo Gathering.

    The OUP thing is still forthcoming as they have come to a change of editors for their African American Biography project, but a larger academic music history publication is required given the absolute mess I have uncovered.

    What I discussed in Knoxville last year was just the beginning of the unraveling of the whole story that we all accepted up to that point although Lowell Schreyer and Carl Anderton after him started casting doubt the confusions.

    Essentially what has occurred is we discovered that the standard story about Butler propounded in scores of books has absolutely no foundation. It is a 20th and 21st century fiction that says much about the inability of music historians and banjo enthusiasts to deal with the realities of history.

    Very much of the research work seems to be really as much about the cultural mythology of music history in general and banjo history in particular, as it has to do with the actual nineteenth century facts. There is a certain sadness that what passes for “banjo history” often is just unfounded romanticism, shorn of any of the critical research techniques used in most disciplines and often ignorant of basic facts of social and political and above all racial history.

    In the last stage of this work, I have also clarified that the fictions about Pic Butler perpetrated by 20th century scholars caused major distortions and non sequiturs about the origins of the song “Jim Crow” and the story of TD Rice. Even the best of them, RIP Lhamon and the late Henry Kmen, made obvious errors by trying to adjust history to meet the dictates of the legend.

    It is rather amazing how some of the work about theatre and circuses in the Ohio Valley and the Gulf Coast from 1829 to 1831 has been distorted foolishly to fit into the fictions about Butler.

    The issue I would raise here is if there is any other published version of the song “Picayune Butler’s Coming to Town” that mentions an early gourd banjo other than the version published on page 33 of Phil Rice’s Method for the Banjo: With or Without a Master, Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co.1858.
    I found many published versions dating from the 1840s on. However, t Phil Rice’s version appears to be the only one referring to a gourd banjo, Many versions do reference the banjo in general and many do not.
    After about 1860 and published versions and reports about the song and later folklore collection really diverge off from any connection with the material in the original song.
    Some have the verse about the old gourd banjo in Rice’s version to claim this documents an historical picture of the early gourd banjo definitely connected with a real Picayune Butler. But what is the basis for that claim?.
    Phil Rice’s version was printed at least 13 years after earlier published versions that I have seen, and about 15 to 20 years after reports of the song being performed that I can verify. There is a strong likelihood that the song was being performed by the mid-1830s and might have been published in the 1830s.
    Why would anyone claim that this version has any link to any kind of historical veracity as opposed to all of the other versions?

    Is there any ground for thinking this in Phil Rice’s background or history? Could this simply be Phil Rice’s imagination or that of the writer of this song that otherwise has standard minstrel verses save its chorus? What is the best set of sources about Phil Rice?

    Rice’s mention of the gourd banjo does underline the general knowledge of the gourd banjo as the antecedent of the frame head banjo and the original Black banjo.
    It does reflects the fact that really until the 1870s or 1880s campaign of Stewart and his ilk (although even SS speaks of Picayune Butler and his gourd banjo in “Dissertation on the Banjo”), it would have been very difficult to find anyone who did not believe that Black people had originated the banjo and most who claimed expertise in the matter largely would have suspected some African connection.
    If anyone can find a version of the song mentioning the gourd banjo besides Phil Rice’s version before or contemporary with Rice 1858 publication, or if anyone has any information about Rice that would privilege his knowledge of the song or the origins of the song above scores of other, earlier versions that do not mention the gourd banjo.
    If anyone has any verifiable 19th century source information on these issues contact me directly if you can. Is there anyone around with a special knowledge of Phil Rice?

    Banjovially

    Tony Thomas

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