Fiddle Tune History -- Minstrel Tales: Picayune Butler and Japanese Tommy "Hunky Dory!"
For much of the 20th century onward, blackface minstrelsy has held an especially vilified place in American culture. Not that it was entirely embraced prior to that, for even in its prime in the mid-19th century minstrelsy was considered a “low” form of entertainment. Period social reformer Frederick Douglass minced no words about it, deriding the “filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens.” His words will be appreciated by many today who still consider blackface minstrelsy the “poster child” of cultural exploitation of one race by another. However, minstrelsy has also been called the seedbed for all subsequent developments in American popular song, dance, and entertainment. For several decades, minstrelsy has been inspected through various revisionist lenses—it has, for example, been seen as an expression of cultural curiosity, an interface and point of cultural engagement between race and ethnicity, and, like rock-and-roll, an expression of a rebelliousness, “a raucous working-class alternative to the prissy ballads and light classical music that were popular at the time.” It has long been identified that minstrelsy contributed to the style, repertoire, and development of American traditional music, and that there is a continuous line of development between early minstrel bands, old time string bands, and modern bluegrass bands.
Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular vernacular musical genre of the mid-19th century, whose heyday was from 1840 until 1870. According to the experts, its origins stem from post-War of 1812, when Americans sought to distance themselves from European cultures, particularly British, and to define themselves with their own distinct culture. In fact, although the war saw a number of military blunders and ineptitudes on the part of the army and government, there were notable successes that made Americans proud, particularly with the performance of the small but plucky Navy throughout the war, capped by the spectacular victory by Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. Literature, art, music, and theater had all been tied to Europe, and now Americans wanted something that was uniquely theirs, and this caused them to pay attention to developments in their own land.
One of the areas that found cultural support was music and entertainment that was decidedly home-grown, for just as the nation’s waterways supported a growing commerce, they became highways for those who found a living in entertaining, or used their talent to enhance their commerce. New Orleans had grown from a colonial supply depot into the second largest port in the country and the fourth largest in the world during the 1840s, and with this expansion came a myriad of cultural influences, including French and Spanish, Creole culture, black and white plantation cultures, Caribbean influences, and Americans from all regions who were drawn to the potential for wealth.
Street entertainment was a part of this scene, with performers from every race and culture represented. One of them was known as “Old Corn Meal,” or “Signor Cormeali,” an African-American street vendor, who was known for walking through the city while leading his horse and cart, selling Indian corn meal. As he did, he sang and danced as he sold his wares. Street vendors, of course, had been providing entertainment from time immemorial as a way of enhancing sales, but Old Corn Meal must have been particularly talented and adept, for his popularity led to an invitation to perform at the St. Charles Theatre in 1837. There he did a solo act alongside his horse and cart. He performed at least once more in the venue, in 1840. Later, a famous blackface minstrel performer named Thomas D. Rice (who was partly responsible for popularizing the “Jim Crow” character) added a skit to his act called “Corn Meal,” likely having seen Old Corn Meal’s act during one of his visits to New Orleans, in 1835, 1836, and 1838.
Another performer who was influenced by Old Corn Meal was John “Picayune” (or “Pic” for short) Butler, who is said to have been from the French West Indies, perhaps Martinique, and who was, like Old Corn Meal, black. Butler had a showman’s talent, and sang, played the banjo, and performed comedy acts up and down the Mississippi. Like Old Corn Meal, he was one of the first documented black performers to have influenced popular music. The stage name he took, “Picayune,” was taken from the name of a Spanish coin in circulation in Louisiana and Florida, worth half a real. Its name derives from the French picaioun, meaning small coin, and when a newspaper was established in New Orleans in 1837 it was named the Picayune, which is the amount it charged for a copy. However, by extension the word picayune can mean “trivial” or “of little value,” and it is perhaps in this self-deprecating sense that it was adopted by Butler—he offered a small but unique entertainment.
The minstrel called Japanese Tommy’s route to fame also had to do with his unique talents, coupled with his outstanding anatomical feature: his size, for he was a dwarf. Born Thomas Dilward (or Dilverd) in Brooklyn, New York, sometime in the late 1830s, he could remember the Astor-place riots (nativist vs. immigrant factions) in 1849, when he escaped by going through Canal Street in a boat with his father. Like many people with physical handicaps, Dilward developed talents for entertaining people as this provided the most promising plan for supporting himself, and he took to the stage early in life. Although his size provided a curiosity factor (he was subjected to advertisements that described him as “three feet broad and three feet long,” although the height was correct, for he stood 37 inches), his talents were several. He was a contortionist, a songster, and a good fiddler. He also was a skilled comedian and actor, playing both male and female roles in the burlesque productions that were, by the 1860s, the last act of a typical minstrel show.
Dilward’s size also gave him access to minstrel organizations that were largely denied others of his physical attributes, for, not only was he small, but he was black. At the time, blackface minstrel troupes were composed nearly exclusively of white men who used burnt cork to “blacken up.” Yet, Dilward readily found employment with a number of prominent organizations, starting with Christy’s Minstrels, when nearly all other black men were excluded. He also performed with Bryant’s Minstrels, Sam Hague’s Georgia Slave Troupe, and Charles Hick’s Georgia Minstrels. He also had principal engagements with the minstrel organizations of Morris Brothers, Pell and Towbridge, and Kelly and Leon’s, and, later in life, he played with African-American minstrel organizations.
How he came to be called “Japanese Tommy” is unknown, although there is some thought that the stage name served to conceal his identity as an African-American, as audiences ironically did not want to see a black person performing in blackface. If true, at other times this pretext was dropped, for he was also billed as “The African ‘Tom Thumb’” and the “African Dwarf Tommy.”
Perhaps knowledge gained in his travels factored into the item that remains Dilward’s lasting legacy: According to John Russell Bartlett’s 1877 Dictionary of Americanisms, Japanese Tommy is credited with the invention of the word hunky-dory. It is said to have derived from the name of a street in Tokyo, or perhaps Yokohama, called Honcho-dori, which translates roughly as “Main Street,” and is as common in that country as any other. The adjective “hunk” was already in English, adopted from the Dutch, meaning “safe” or “in good position” (in Dutch, or West Frisian, honck means “house” or “safe place”), and, while the word “hunk” is now obsolete (not counting the modern slang term for a fit young man) it remained in English as “hunky.” As the story goes, it was Tommy’s inspiration to marry it with “dory”: hunky-dory, or “everything is all right.” The term was noted in print in 1866.
Dilward’s last appearance was with the Criterion Minstrels in his home town of Brooklyn, N.Y., in March, 1887. He died at about the age of fifty in July of that year of an acute asthma attack at the Colored Home and Hospital, and was buried in Mrs. Margaret Loy’s lot at Evergreen Cemetery, which straddles the border between Brooklyn and Queens.
[For the full text of this article, plus the tunes “Camp Town Reel” and “Japanese Tommy’s Reel,” purchase the Summer 2012 issue.]
[Andrew Kuntz is the author of a book of old time songs and tunes called Ragged But Right (1987) as well as the on-line tune encyclopedia “The Fiddlers’ Companion” (www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers). When not researching tunes, he enjoys playing in Irish music sessions.]?