Sissieretta Jones: a snapshot biography.

Sissieretta Jones Biography

“I have a voice and I am striving to win the favor of the public by honest merit and hard work.” – Sissieretta Jones

Vintage sepia-toned cabinet card photograph of Sissieretta Jones, a renowned African American soprano of the late 19th century. She is posed with her left elbow resting on a draped column, her head tilted slightly to the right, looking directly at the camera. She wears an elegant, sleeveless dress adorned with intricate patterns and a collection of medals on her left side, suggesting her celebrated status. Her hair is styled up and she carries a confident, dignified expression.
Sissieretta Jones, 1895

She was an enormous talent who could sing with the best. One could argue that she was the best. Sissieretta Jones sang in a beautiful and pleasing voice. Audiences loved her. In a time when black performers tended to entertain black audiences, she sang to everyone, including U.S. President Benjamin Harrison and his friends and family. That performance took place when Sissieretta was in her mid-20s. She would perform for President Harrison again and sing for the next three U.S. presidents along with the British Royal family as well. 

Upbringing & Early Years

Sissieretta was born as Mathilda Sissieretta Joyner in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1868. Her parents were part of a growing community of middle-class Black Americans there. But in her early youth, Sissieretta’s family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, after her younger siblings passed away. It was here in Providence that Sissieretta began singing. While how her learning started isn’t clear, likely she took after her mother, a pianist. Then at fifteen, Sissieretta enrolled at the Academy of Music in Providence. 

At eighteen, Sissieretta married. And soon after, she had a child, Mabel. However, only two years later, Mabel passed away. It is believed that at this point, Sissieretta began putting much more time and effort into her music life. 

Professional Life & Later Years

Before her twentieth birthday, Sissieretta performed in Boston’s Music Hall to a crowd of five thousand. And from there, praise for her singing came quickly. 

One review said, “She kept the audience spell-bound…and was received with rapture…She is unmistakeably entitled to the lavish praise she so justly deserve.”

Another reviewer wrote, “It is difficult to do her justice without incurring a suspicion of being betrayed into exaggeration…Madame JONES’ voice is of great compass, and combined strength and sweetness, and she articulated every word distinctly; she is one of those rare singers whom one can listen to without the idea of ever getting satiated.”

Sissieretta performed worldwide, becoming the highest-paid Black singer of her time. She retired in 1915 to care of her sick mother. And she continued singing, performing in church. 

Sissieretta passed away in 1933.  

Sources

Sissieretta Jones photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony, circa 1895 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.2009.37 / Graziano, John. “The Early Life and Career of the ‘Black Patti’: The Odyssey of an African American Singer in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 53, no. 3, 2000, pp. 543–96. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/831938. Accessed 15 Dec. 2022. / “Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933).” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 4, no. 2, 1976, pp. 191–201. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1214508. Accessed 22 Dec. 2022.

Notes

Please click here to read our snapshot biography of another singer, Billie Holiday.

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