Sissieretta Jones (1869–1933)
by Randye Jones
Concert spirituals were not available to the African American vocalists who flourished during the nineteenth century. The opportunities for success in the world of classical music for Blacks were virtually nonexistent even for those whose vocal abilities should have resulted in professional notoriety. However, there were a few singers who, despite extreme obstacles, found enough success to make it feasible for those who followed to reach otherwise inconceivable levels of achievement. One of those few was soprano Sissieretta Jones.
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones was the daughter of an ex-slave and minister who was able to provide her with the opportunities necessary for her to receive a musical education. As a classically trained singer, the soprano earned notoriety as a performer in New York, by touring in the Americas and Europe, and by performing for political dignitaries, including four American presidents. Referred to as “Black Patti,” Jones was compared to Italian-French soprano Adelina Patti (1843–1919), the most famous opera singer of her era, but Jones’ race prevented her from being seriously considered for suitable soprano roles in the world’s opera houses. Jones had “a big voice that spanned nearly two and a half octaves, from a low C to a high E. Her upper notes were described as clear and bell-like, and her lower register was said to have the depth of a contralto.”1
White music critics and audiences were simply unused to seeing African Americans on the classical music stage. Jones was obliged to shape her musical career within the limited professional options available to her. This was a situation similarly faced by other African American singers, including the “Black Swan,” Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (ca. 1824–1876), who gave a command performance for England’s Queen Victoria in 1854, tenor Thomas Bowers (ca. 1823–1885), called the “Colored Mario,” who toured with Greenfield before developing a career as a solo recitalist, and Marie Selika Williams (ca. 1849–1937), a coloratura soprano who was the first African American artist to perform at the White House and gave a command performance for Queen Victoria in 1883, and sisters Anna Madah Hyers (ca. 1855–1929) and Emma Louise Hyers (ca. 1857–1901), who were singers and pioneers in musical theater. Each of these singers found that:
So much attention has been given to the folk songs of the illiterate and to Negro buffoonery, that few have realized how arduously the lone artists strove to achieve musical recognition. In a letter to a friend, Bowers in his maturity wrote, “What induced me more than anything else to appear in public was to give the lie to ‘Negro serenaders’ (minstrels), and to show to the world that colored men and women could sing classical music as well as the members of the other races by whom they had been so terribly vilified.”2
Limited by the societal restrictions of the time, Jones eventually settled for headlining the Black Patti Troubadours, performing costumed excerpts from operas in what was, otherwise, predominately a minstrel show. The challenges she faced were aptly described:
Sissieretta Jones struggled as an artist, fighting daily for dignity and artistic survival in a world that viewed her as, at best, a freakish imitation of a white ideal. Refusing to see her only as the gifted singer she was, the public lauded her with left-handed praise: the “dusky diva,” the “chocolate-hued” songstress, the “Black Patti.” Critics acknowledged her beauty, but never without qualifications: “The Black Patti is of pure Negro blood,” said one reporter, “nevertheless [emphasis added], she is of very pleasing appearance.” The comparisons with Patti were ludicrous; there was no comparing the two. Patti was the idol of millions, demanded at least $4,000 nightly, and retired to her opulent Welsh castle, complete with private theater. Jones rarely earned more than $300 for one appearance and retired, largely forgotten, to a life of poverty.3
1Rosalyn M. Story. And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert. (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 4.
2Maud Cuney Hare. Negro Musicians and Their Music. (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996), 201.
A short documentary on Sissieretta Jones produced by Carnegie Hall:
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: April 12, 2019. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/sissieretta-jones-biography.