When a young African American born in the 1870s looked at representations of her people on the American stage, what she saw reflected back at her were little more than garish caricatures. The minstrel shows that black performers were only starting to reclaim from cork-blackened white actors perpetuated old stereotypes about black people as mindless and perpetually jovial, naturally inferior and content with subservience.
Looking at these shows, there might have been much to be entertained by between the cakewalks and monkeyshines, but little to be proud of, or aspire to. That all changed, however, in the mid 1890s with the arrival of one figure, a soprano of universal appeal and powerful voice, who almost single-handedly diverted the stream of black entertainment away from its minstrel show past, and towards a true tradition of black theater, as created by black writers and composers, and performed by all-black casts. Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933) first showed white audiences that black singers could deliver operatic performances the equal of any classically trained white artist, and then led by example over two decades of grueling touring through every town of significance in the United States, showing a generation of aspiring black actors and actresses, singers and dancers, that they need not surrender their integrity in order to make a living in their art.
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was born three years after the Civil War’s close in Reconstruction-era Virginia. Her father was a carpenter and pastor, while her mother was a washerwoman who was known to her Church congregation for the power of her voice. For most blacks in Virginia in 1868, the future was a bleak affair – the federal government promised a reconstructed South but on the ground local prejudice and grinding poverty were the determining factors shaping their reality. Matilda’s father was fortunate enough to receive an offer to preach in Providence, Rhode Island, where his literacy (rare in a Southern black population that had been systematically denied education) would be a decided advantage to his future prospects.
The family moved in 1876 but by 1878 Matilda’s mother and father separated, and her mother, Henrietta, was faced with the prospect of having to support herself and her daughter in a bustling and often expensive city through the meager income she brought in by ironing and washing clothes. Though life was hard, young Matilda was marked by a tendency to sing at all times – at school, in Church, while doing common jobs around the house. Her mother noted the young child’s gift and, after a performance at Pond Street Baptist Church, others in the community did as well, and somehow the funding was found to send her in 1883 to the Providence Academy of Music.
Aged fifteen, Matilda was not only embarking on an unheard of career as a classically trained musician, but was also experimenting with romance in the form of a hotel bellman named David Richard Jones, whom she married in late 1883. Seven months later, she gave birth to a daughter, Mabel, who died suddenly in 1886. David was in these years equal parts blessing and curse, arranging performance opportunities that Matilda might not have pursued on her own, but also flagrantly spending the money she earned on horse gambling and drink. Eventually the couple would separate, but in these early years Matilda with David’s management went from success to success, buoyed by the support of the few classically trained black women performers who had carved a name for themselves before her.
Flora Batson (1864-1906) and Marie Selika (1849-1937) in particular were key figures in bringing Matilda to prominence in the mid-1880s. Batson, a soprano-baritone known as the “Double-Voiced Queen of Song”, had been performing and touring since 1883 and in May 1885 invited Matilda to join her at a concert for the Fourth Battalion Drum Corps. That performance led to other concert gigs, culminating in an invitation from Marie Selika, the first black artist to perform in the White House, to join her at the Providence Music Hall for a concert in December. Batson would continue throughout the late 1880s inviting Matilda to co-star with her in the Bergen Star Concerts arranged by her promoter (and future husband) John Bergen.
In the mid 1890s, Sissieretta Jones, a soprano of universal appeal and powerful voice, almost single-handedly diverted the stream of black entertainment away from its minstrel show past towards a true tradition of black theater.
At the time, it was traditional for the press to coin descriptive nick-names for the stars of the black musical community. Batson was the Queen of Song, Selika the Brown Patti (after the famous Italian soprano Adelina Patti), and Elizabeth Greenfield the Black Swan. The name that stuck with Matilda, who by 1892 started going by her middle name of Sissieretta in public announcements, was “The Black Patti.” It was a useful description for concert promoters to intrigue and draw in white concert-goers, but it was also an invitation to comparison which Sissieretta, particularly at the beginning of her career, didn’t feel she could possibly emerge well from. The nickname, however, stuck, and Sissieretta Jones, the Black Patti, would remain her tagline until her retirement in 1915.
The first stage of Jones’s career ran until 1896 and reads like that of many gifted classical singers – a tour through the West Indies and South America in 1888, a private performance for President Benjamin Harrison and his enthusiastic wife on February 24, 1892, culminating in a star-turn at Madison Square Garden in April of 1892. That performance made her a national name and catapulted her to a tour of Europe in 1894/95 that saw her perform before the Prince of Wales and various other crowned heads.
The next logical step would be to move from concertizing to a fully realized operatic career. She had offers to undertake various roles in fully staged operas, but froze in a moment of self doubt. She had never studied acting or stage performance, and worried that her ability to sing a song in a concert hall with feeling and intelligence might not be enough to carry her in the rendering of a fully realized character on stage. In dozens of articles, she had been declared a great source of pride to her race, proof of what could be accomplished – what if, in reaching for the highest honor and failing, she betrayed the trust that had been placed in her?
She hesitated, and in that hesitation the course of her next stage of life was decided. Her manager during the European tour, Rudolph Voelckel, came up with a plan to build an entire touring company around the now legendary figure of Black Patti, to be called Black Patti’s Troubadours. Traveling minstrel shows had been common for decades, but this was to be a step forward in class and sophistication, centered on Jones’s reputation as a world class operatic professional.
Well, sort of. In their first seasons, Troubadours shows were broken into three distinct acts. The last of these, featuring Jones, was an “Operatic Kaleidoscope” that featured a selection of opera’s greatest hits performed either solo or with a backing chorus, featuring sumptuous costumes and the best talent that money could buy. The first act, however, typically featured a thinly plotted miniature musical stuffed with rag-time based “coon songs” which were all the rage with white audiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Featuring songs like “All Coons Look Alike To Me” and “I Want a Real Coon,” this act was minstrelsy redefined for the ragtime age, and its undercurrent of self-debasement was increasingly commented on by critics who were pained at the difference in tone and dignity between Jones’s part of the show and the farcical musical opener.
The second act, or “olio”, featured a variety of vaudeville-like curiosity acts strung together in no particular order which, if not particularly elevating, were also not blatantly racist, so we’ll call it a wash.
Black Patti’s Troubadours toured the country, with a name change to The Black Patti Musical Comedy Company in 1909, from 1896 to 1915, and was throughout those years the most profitable and popular touring black ensemble show of the continent, playing to capacity crowds everywhere from the deep South to the cities of Canada, and San Francisco to New York. The Troubadours underwent a punishing schedule, performing forty-five weeks a year, overwhelmingly in one night stands that saw the company drive into town in their personal railroad car (to avoid the omnipresent issue of hotels refusing to rent rooms to non-whites) in the morning, set up their show, perform a matinee and an evening show, tear down the show at night, and move to the next city to do it all again. In the first thirteen seasons, they played 3,822 shows, and Sissieretta Jones performed in all but two of them, an almost unimaginable Ripken-like streak of fortitude and dedication.
On stage, Jones was known for the deep evocative quality of her lower measure, and the bell like tone of her high notes, all spread across a two octave range that remained strong to the eve of her retirement. We have no recordings of her voice but we are in the possession of thousands of reviews spread across three continents, all of which are near unanimous in their view that Sissieretta Jones was the equal of any white performer in the power of her voice and feeling of her renderings. And she remained so consistently appealing even as she headed into that middle age, which is the death knell of so many performers, thanks to a willingness to perform both traditional songs and classical repertoire, giving both the same attention to detail and fullness of feeling. Her audiences loved that the same woman who performed Verdi and Gounod with Metropolitan Opera level professionalism was also willing to perform with the same fond artistry “Swanee River” (her signature encore) or “Maggie, the Cows are in the Clover.”
Season after season, Jones and her evolving company hit the rails to bring entertainment to every corner of America, and as she grew comfortable in her role as classical emissary, she grew likewise in confidence. In their final seasons together, she felt that she was ready at last to undertake acting roles, to speak as well as to sing, and the show mercifully shed its three act format to become a full-length, lavishly staged musical starring Jones throughout, full of dance and spectacle. In a time when touring companies the country over were failing in droves at the feet of the new craze for film and cheap vaudeville amusements, Black Patti’s Musical Comedy Company was a reliable smash that booked houses and broke records wherever it went. With words and songs written by black artists, and featuring on stage a fully black cast of ballet dancers and classical singers, the Company was proof against the stereotype that a black entertainer could only succeed in plantation farces written by members of the more creative and artistically refined white race, and Jones was adored wherever she went as an example of how successful one could be by sticking hard to one’s gifts and dignity.
A money making juggernaut, the Company seemed poised to plough on forever. Eighteen seasons on, it had outsurvived and outperformed all rivals with no sign of slowing down until one day in 1915, without warning, it came to a dead stop in the city of Memphis. That season debuted in the cities of the North with all expected success, but then, for a constellation of reasons, the show began flopping wherever it played in the South. The Company was always an expensive show to run, but the profits had heretofore justified the expense. Now, with a string of failed performances, cash ran out fast until, arriving in Memphis, Voelckel couldn’t pay the rental fee for the prospective hall or indeed provide the most basic of needs for the troupe. He contemplated suicide but opted instead for fleeing back North, abandoning his actors without resources to find their way back home as best they could. The Company, which had taken black entertainment from gawking self-parody to a respectable platform for world-class talent over the space of two decades, was finished.
And so, it turned out, was Sissieretta Jones. After a brief stint of experimentation with vaudeville performance, where she was asked to drop her classical performances in the name of making an easier buck, she decided to retire from public performance entirely and devote herself to caring for her mother. Over the three decades of her career she had amassed a small treasure trove of jewels and medals, the gifts of an adoring public, and these she sold to sustain herself in the ensuing years while the world quickly forgot that there ever was a Black Patti. In her final years, she was reduced to borrowing money from a loyal supporter for basic needs, and upon her death in 1933 the sale of the remaining items in her estate did not cover her debts.
Her neighbors remembered her as an old woman who kept to herself, who hummed softly while she tended her roses with steady devotion.
FURTHER READING: After her death, interest in Jones’s story lay fallow for three decades until Willia Daughtry began researching her in the late 1960s. Daughtry wrote a dissertation on her in 1968, and then a full book Vision and Reality: The Story of “Black Patti” Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones in 2002. In addition, Maureen D. Lee spent years poring over newspapers and programs to laboriously reconstruct Jones’s career and the travel seasons for the Troubadours, putting her research into Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race” 1868-1933 (2012).
FURTHER LISTENING: We have no recordings of Jones, but here is a smattering of some of the music most associated with her career, starting with her signature song, “The Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)” by Stephen Foster, as performed by the legendary Paul Robeson:
Gounod’s “Ave Maria” (set overtop a Bach prelude in 1853) was a mainstay of Jones’s early concert career. Here is Kathleen Battle performing it in 1986:
Another of her early regulars was Weber’s “Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster” which also answers the question, “Where did Wagner come from?” Here’s Birgit Nilsson rocking it at Covent Garden:
One of Jones’s greatest hits from the latter part of her career was “Love is King” by African American composer Will Marion Cook. Sadly, I could not find a single recording of it online to share with you, so in its stead here is another of Cook’s pieces, ”Rain Song”, as performed by Marti Newland:
Lead Photo: Sissieretta Jones, photo by Napoleon Sarony – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Public Domain – This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.