X:1 T:Camp-Town Reel C:Picayune Butler M:2/4 L:1/8 R:Buckley’s New Banjo Method (1860, p. 78) Z:AK/Fiddler’s Companion K:A E|Ac c/d/c/B/|c/d/c/B/ c/B/c/d/|e/c/A/B/ cA|ED CB,| Ac c/d/c/B/|c/d/c/B/ c/B/c/d/|e/c/A/B/ cd|1 z/a/ g/f/ e/d/c/B/:|2 e3|| |:e/d/|c/e/d/c/ B/d/c/B/|A/B/c/d/ e/f/g/a/|e/f/g/a/ b/c'/d'/b/|c'/a/b/e/ a/g/f/e/| c/e/d/c/ B/d/c/B/|A/B/c/d/ e/f/g/a/|e/f/g/a/ b/c'/d'/b/|d'/a/b/e/ a:||
CAMP-TOWN REEL. American, Reel (2/4 time). A Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AA'BB. The melody is credited by James Buckley (1860) to a 'Picayune Butler', who may or may not have been the John 'Picayune' (or 'Pic') Butler (d. 1864), a black entertainer from New Orleans active at least from the 1820's, who is thought to have come from Martinique. Butler sang, played the banjo, and performed comedy acts on up and down the Mississippi, and was an influence on blackface minstrel performers, and thus one of the first documented black performers to have influenced popular music. Around the year 1830 an entertainer named George Nichols first sang a song about 'Jim Crow', first as a clown, and then in black-face. "He first conceived the idea from...a banjo player, known [along the river route] from New Orleans to Cincinnati as Picayune Butler" [Brown, Early History of Negro Minstrelsy]. A song, "Picayune Butler's Come to Town" is credited to Butler, and was a hit song on the minstrel circuit around 1845 (and published in Phil Rice's Correct Method for the Banjo, 1858). It begins:
About some twenty years ago,
Old Butler reigned wid he old Banjo,
'Twas a gourd, three string'd, and an old pine stick,
But when he hit it he made is speak,
The instrument described is a gourd banjo, which Butler is said to have used in his earlier years, although he later switched to a four string instrument (the five string variety was not invented until c. 1842)
His renown was such that he spawned imitators who adopted his name and, to some extent, his identity, creating some confusion. For example, the Picayune Butler described in the following passage is thought to have been a white performer named John M. Butler (see Lowell H. Schreyer, Banjo Entertainers, Roots to Ragtime, 2007), who was age 35 when he was a competitor in the first great banjo competition (and far to young to have been the original Picayune Butler).
In 1857 a New York City banjo manufacturer, Charles Morrell had the idea to sponsor a competition among the best banjo players he was able to assemble, for the worthy prize of a new banjo valued at $100.00 and bragging rights be called the 'Champion Banjoist of America'. It was the first formal competition on the instrument in American history, and was held in the Old Chinese Assembly Rooms (No. 549 Broadway) in New York City. Years later Morrell wrote an account of the event that was published in S.S. Stewart's Banjo and Guitar Journal, July-August, 1890.
Butler and another banjo player, Charles Plummer, were crowd favorites, each man having a substantial entourage of fans and supporters. "On the evening of the concert, ladies and gentlemen came early so as to get good seats," wrote Morrell, "and as different sections (of town) came in it was not long before the hall was packed; so much so that many ladies in front fainted and had to be taken out the rear entrance was it was impossible to to get out at the front door. At eight o'clock there were three thousand people in the hall, and a great many more outside trying to get in." The crowd was warmed up by an opening act, the New Orleans Serenaders, and a well-known minstrel performer, Billy Blair, was master of ceremonies. As he called each contestant to the stage his announcement was greeted loudly by the musician's supporters, and each musician played the required waltz, reel, schottische, polka and jig. Plummer and Butler, crowd favorites, went last and drew straws to see who would play first. Butler lost and went to the stage with a thunderous ovation; "I thought the roof would fall off, but it was plain to see that he was a little under the influence of liquor; so much so, that he broke two strings during his trial." Plummer cleaned up by playing an outstanding five-tune medley of his own, not pausing between tunes, and finishing to an overwhelming ovation.
The moniker 'Picayune Butler' was applied a few years later to Union General Benjamin (Franklin) Butler, a Massachusetts politician who was excoriated in the Confederate press, and who was also known as 'Old Fuss and Feathers'.
A rather crude 1861 broadside song (to the tune of "All on Hobbies") goes:
Old Fuss and Feathers, as we knew before,
Sent away from down East to sack Baltimore,
A gimblet-eyed lawyer of State prison fame,
With a vile set of cut throats and this heroes name.
Was Picayune Butler, Picayune Butler,
Picayune Butler of state prison fame.
See also Butler's "Walk Round."