Friday, February 26, 2010

Pages From History: A Biography of Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933)

Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933)

Born Matilda Joyner in Portsmouth, Virginia, Jones moved to Providence, Rhode Island at an early age. Her father was the pastor and choir director of the Portsmouth, Virginia African Methodist Episcopal Church and her mother was a soprano in the choir. It is believed that Sissieretta Jones inherited her voice from her mother. She showed her talent as a singer as early as five years old.

Married at age 14, she started voice training in Providence. Although it is a matter of conjecture, most sources state that she continued her studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She made her professional debut in Providence, which led to a tour of Europe, South America, and the West Indies with the famous Tennessee Jubilee Singers.

James Weldon Johnson observed that she possessed "the natural voice, the physical figure, the grand air and the engaging personality," characteristic of a great singer. The Washington Post described her voice as: "A phenomenal attraction ... the upper notes of her voice are clear and bell-like...and her low notes are rich and sensuous with a tropical contralto quality...In fact, the compass and quality of her registers surpass the usual limitations and seem to combine the height and depth of both soprano and contralto." Critics concurred that Sissieretta coerced the "musical and theatrical worlds in the United States to accept the Negro in a new image."

Compared to the Italian soprano at the time, Adelina Patti, Jones was pejoratively dubbed the "Black Patti". She vehemently disapproved of the name, yet it stuck and it was used in the name of her vaudeville act. Black Patti's Troubadours was composed of singers and dancers, featuring Sissieretta, which toured the United States and abroad for 20 years. The company's repertoire included minstrel performances. Although Patti considered this aspect of the show demeaning, she sought to improve its overall quality and simultaneously extend her repertoire by including spirituals and arias in her finale.

She performed for several presidents of the United States, the Prince of Wales and the Kaiser and at places like the Chicago World's Fair and Madison Square Garden. She was barred from performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Despite this, she had many successes, some of which qualify as breakthroughs. (It was not until 1955 that the color bar was lifted at the Metropolitan Opera with a performance by the contralto Marian Anderson.)

Performing for totally white audiences who viewed her as an anomaly, she was heralded as the premier African-American singer of her time. Despite the inequities and indignities she experienced, she forced whites to see blacks as capable, dignified, and talented. She paved the way for black opera singers such as Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle.

Symptomatic of black performers in the past, she had to deal with mismanagement and died penniless in 1933.

She sang her way into history


Journal-Bulletin file photo

More than a century ago, the walls of the Congdon Street Baptist Church reverberated with the "sweet, clear" voice of a young woman who went on to become a music legend.

Madame Sissieretta Jones, who grew up in Providence, toured the world to share her "soprano voice of great richness," considerable range and "impeccable enunciation," one critic said. Critics credited Sissieretta with forcing the "musical and theatrical worlds in the United States to accept the Negro in a new image."

Jones was the first black woman to sing at Carnegie Hall, she sang for the Prince of Wales, and was invited to the White House to sing before three different presidents, including Benjamin Harrison in 1882.

"She had most of the qualities essential in a great singer: the natural voice, the physical figure, the grand air and the engaging personality," said James Weldon Johnson, a contemporary lyricist of the time.

Jones was born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner in Portsmouth, Va., in 1869. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Jeremiah Joyner, and Henrietta Joyner, from whom Jones apparently inherited her enchanting soprano voice.

When Jones was 7, the family moved to Providence, in search of better educational and economic opportunities.

At 14, she began her first formal music training at the Providence Academy of Music and at music schools in Boston. The same year, she married David Richard Jones, "a gambling man" who went on to manage his wife's career and lavishly spend their money until the couple divorced, in 1900.

In 1892, at the age of 23, Jones sang in New York's Madison Square Garden.

A newspaper review of the performance compared her to famous Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, and it condescendingly tagged Jones as "the Black Patti," a nickname she disliked but was unable to shake.

Shortly afterward, Jones was considered to be cast in the lead role of a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which would have fulfilled her dreams. Racial prejudice kept her from appearing on stage. The Met's color barrier stayed in place for another 60 years, until Marian Anderson became the first black person to sing a lead role there, in 1955.

From 1895 to 1916, Jones led a troupe of singers and musicians on a tour through the United States and abroad. Called the Black Patti Troubadours, the group performed minstrel shows and musical skits.

While Jones initially considered the minstrel performances demeaning, she was able to expand her repertoire by singing spirituals and opera arias for the show's finale. The show served as a training ground for hundreds of black entertainers.

Jones was given many gifts from admirers, among them, a medal from President Hippolyte of Haiti, a bar of diamonds and emeralds from the citizens of St. Thomas, an emerald shamrock from the Irish people of Providence and a diamond tiara from the governor general of a West Indies island. She often wore her 17 medals across her chest during performances.

After touring for about 20 years, the Troubadours disbanded, and Jones returned to her home in Providence to care for her ailing mother and grandmother.

She lived the next 18 years at her home on Wheaton Street, taking in homeless children and selling mementos from her days of glory to pay her living expenses.

Jones died of cancer in June 1933 in Rhode Island Hospital. She was buried in Grace Church Cemetery, Providence.


Sources: Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston; Puritans, Pioneers and Pacesetters; eight people who shaped Rhode Island, by Marie Fontaine and Janice O'Donnell, and Providence Journal-Bulletin articles.

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