120: Black Swans and Black Nightingales. 19th Century black prima donnas in Britain

Eileen Southern’s majesterial The Music of Black Americans (3rd edition, 1997) noted ‘The last quarter of the [19th] century saw the rise of no fewer than five black “prima donnas,” as they were called by the press, who won international renown’ (page 244). Marie Selika Williams (d 1937), Flora Batson (d 1906) and Sissieretta Jones (d 1933) all visited Britain. Nellie Brown Mitchell (d 1924) and Rachel Waller the Creole Nightingale are her other candidates. The fashion ended in the 1890s. An earlier visitor was Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (d 1876), called the Black Swan, who was in Britain in the 1850s. On returning to the U.S.A. these women had an enhanced reputation because they had performed before royalty and the wealthy – when even entry into white American homes was open only to servants.

In 1856 Mary Webb had come to Britain, not as a singer but presenting dramatic readings from the recent and still selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She and her novelist husband Frank Webb moved to Jamaica, where slavery did not exist and the Duke of Argyll’s patronage found him a government job (the duke’s wife was one of Queen Victoria’s daughters). Europeans were aware that people of African descent in the U.S.A. lived in a world dominated by slavery even if they had been born free. Much of the sympathy that they gave to the black prima donnas was affected by this. The unstated aspect of curiosity also applied: what were these people like? How could an enslaved people produce high art?

Some of the managers were showmen, notably P. T. Barnum, who had made $500,000 from the US tour of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale in 1850-1851. Well-dressed in the latest styles, the prima donnas were celebrities once Barnum and others contracted them for tours. Singing in the chorus, or even as a soloist, in grand opera did not bring such fame and fortune. Lind was not alone in getting to meet leading composers and personalities of the art music world, and although she retired well before she was thirty, she was to teach singing at London’s Royal College of Music, and have a memorial in Westminster Abbey.

The black prima donnas were seen as novelties; the critics assuming they lacked training. Greenfield’s London recital of 30 May 1853 led the Morning Chronicle to reports she had ‘some feeling for singing pathetic ballads, but nothing more, and nothing else’. The Times (1 June 1853) said this ‘coloured lady (from America) … does not greatly shine’ but had an ‘extraordinary voice’. Lloyd’s Weekly of 5 June referred to her as ‘The “Black Swan”.’ Greenfield had moved into the gracious surroundings of the grand houses of Negrophiles including the fabulously wealthy Duchess of Sutherland who, with Harriet Beecher Stowe who had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, became her sponsor. She sang in Dublin, Preston, York, Leeds, Edinburgh and Lincoln at the end of 1853. On 10 May 1854 she performed at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria (one of her staff was the Duchess of Sutherland). Greenfield was not singing European art songs now, but ‘national songs’ which seem to have been negro spirituals. She then returned to Philadelphia.

Marie Selika Williams had sung for the president at the White House in 1878. In the 1880s she made two visits to Britain. The name Selika probably came from Meyerbeer’s opera l’Africaine (the African Maid) of 1865 where it is the name of a slave girl. The opera was well-known in Britain and was presented in the Royal Italian Opera’s programme in London in 1882. Madame Selika appeared on 14 October 1882 at the St James’s Hall in London, at a concert in aid of educating slave children in Cuba, alongside Carlotta Patti whose sister Adelina was extremely famous. Selika was described as ‘a Creole lady’ and her performance had been ‘very favourably received’. The Era noted she was a ‘fresh vocalist’. Mixing with several stalwarts of London’s musical world must have aided her progress but the Royal Aquarium venue was more of a circus than a concert hall. It opened at noon for eleven hours, and there were a dozen acts as well as the aquarium and an exhibition of pictures – all for one shilling. Selika appeared at 4.45 and 9.15, each slot being fifteen minutes. Other acts included a ‘negro delineator’ (white humourist in black face), six performing lions, and an organ recitalist. Changes were made but she continued on the bill, making just one appearance of ten minutes, by the end of December 1882. The Morning Post  (28 December) reviewer thought most visitors were attracted by the show not by the tanks of fish, praised Nala Dalamanti for her ‘surprising’ skills as a snake charmer, and of Selika wrote she was ‘a singer possessing an excellent voice, which she uses to advantage’. She was also praised some days later in the Era, which was most welcome as that weekly was the main entertainment publication in Britain. The Indian snake charmer had a lengthy review – her handling of a cobra some thirteen feet long (over 4 metres) and how the stage was covered with reptiles was noted, as were the legs of a female trapeze artist. Selika was ‘a vocalist of considerable ability’, possessing ‘considerable fluency of execution’ and her singing was well received. She sang to an orchestral accompaniment. Farini’s ‘missing link’ was absent from the performance but there were performing dogs and musical clowns. There was no mention of her colour in the advertising or reviews after ‘Creole’ had been used.

The black press in America reported on the successes and experiences of kinfolk in Europe, using reports from migrants and press cuttings. The New York Globe of 3 March 1883 reported on Selika, advising there was a legion of contestants seeking to be heard in London. Her St James’s Hall debut had been ‘highly successful’. There was no mention of the weeks at the Royal Aquarium. She and her husband had gone to Scotland, Germany and Belgium. They had been aided by the Afro-Canadian banjo maestros the  Bohee brothers who ‘are now considered permanent London institutions’. Sampson Williams also sang at his wife’s concerts, had taken lessons with her tutor Signor Mazzoni, and they had been to France too. They returned to Europe in the late 1880s but an appearance before QueenVictoria (October 1883) has not been confirmed ( ‘In Retrospect:  Black Prima Donnas of the Nineteenth Century’, Black Perspective in Music (New York), Vol 7 No 1 (Spring 1979), pp 96-97).

Flora Batson married her white manager and is also known as Flora Batson Bergen. BlackPast.org states ‘Early in her career Batson came to be known as the “Double-Voiced Queen of Song” in reference to her soprano-baritone range. Loved not only for her impressive range, but for her sweet tonal quality and her compelling stage presence, Batson occasionally sang excerpts from operas.  Her signature musical genre, however, was the ballad, often singing The Last Rose of Summer, The Cows Are in the Corn [sic], and The Ship of Fire, for example. Her concerts usually ended with enthusiastic standing ovations and as a tribute to her title, “Queen of Song,” different cities often presented her with diamonds, tiaras, and other jewelry.’ It has not been possible to trace her in British newspapers on line, but it is known she associated with Sissieretta Jones whose biographer says Jones performed ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and ‘Maggie, the Cows are in the Clover’ (Maureen Lee, Sissieretta Jones, University of South Carolina Press, 2012, p 48).
Sissieretta Jones worked with Dvorak in New York in 1894; a year later she was in Berlin and from April 1895 she was in England. She appeared in a music hall or variety theatre along with dancing dogs, and other amusements. The press noted she had a two-octave range, and that she had presented ‘The Last Rose of Summer’.  Her choice of song was similar to the programme of Adelina Patti, and she was described as the Black Patti. Jones was back in New York in late November 1895. She went on to lead in the forty-strong Black Patti Troubadours, a show that included dancers, comedians and a Cuban Nightingale. This paid her $500 a week.
The costumes worn by these women were often hung with medals awarded by enthusiasts. Lee’s Sissieretta Jones has fine examples. The modern eye notices oddities such as the 1888 New York billing of Miss Batson as  the ‘Jenny Lind of the Race’ (Black Perspective in Music (New York), Vol 7 No 1 (Spring 1979), p 99) and the absence of any assessment of the musical or artistic qualities of the aristocrats who praised these sable songsters. The British royal family’s only known musical member was the Danish wife of Victoria’s heir, the future Edward VII.
From the 1870s Europeans were presented with spirituals performed by mixed choral groups, notably the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Wilmington Jubilee Singers (see page 085). They avoided working on stage between appearances of snake charmers, clowns and performing dogs. What is certain is that the absence of US-style segregation revealed that the race lines of America were not a natural part of life for millions in Europe. There were insults, and accommodation problems, but nothing like the dangerous and demeaning world that they were forced to experience when back in the U.S.A. European music tutors in the U.S.A. did train black Americans but the world of concert halls and recitals in palaces, grand houses and participation in music-making with whites was normal in Europe. The grandly-dressed African American prima donnas took their place, centre-stage, and were fine entertainment.
The careers in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, of male singers John Payne, Roland Hayes, Jules Bledsoe, Louis Drysdale, and Paul Robeson owed a great deal to the foundation laid by these earlier prima donnas.

Pages expanding this theme include
001 In Dahomey
049 Eugene McAdoo’s singers
074 Uncle Tom’s Cabin
075 Horace Weston, banjo maestro
137 Minstrel shows in Britain


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