Tyehimba Jess

Issue #
February 18, 2013

Sissieretta Jones & the Black Patti Troubadours* "Forte/Grazioso"

Forte - with force was the will that overtook me, that freed my throat and lit my

mouth to music. Forte was each wave of song, forte like my father's choir of

freedmen, sometimes wavered and off key, sometimes pitched in more fear than

light, but always forte, hurling what voice was left to them into the cauldron of

church air after lifetimes singing their spirituals in secret. They sang forte like the

stevedores' shout from ship to shore, crate after crate of cargo burdened into the

holds, their gandy opera bouncing off hulls, forte in the grazioso of their motion, the

all-together swing of arm and hand and rope and hoisted weight, grazioso onto

decks all braced for storm, all blessed with prayer from each Providence pulpit,

prayed over from bow to stern, blessings from the communion cry of each church,

all grazioso with hands raised in testimony. I hear them each night, forte when I

stand on our prow of stage from town to town, port to port, captain of this ragtag

ship of blackfaced, cakewalking fools and balladeers, teaching crowds grazioso

under spotlights with each ticket sold. Forte is the cry of the barker bundling each

crowd with the smooth talk promise: darkie entertainment with a touch of high

class classical. Forte is the finale each night, grazioso is the closing curtain, the

unmasking of painted faces, the darkened lamplight, the applause fading like the

hush of receding surf that carries us on through the night, the ocean of audience

rising and falling with each wave of season, grazioso is the sail of our bodies in their


*From 1896 to 1915 Jones toured the world with the Black Patti Troubadors, one of the most successful vaudeville companies around. Their performances included minstrelsy, acrobatics and comedy acts.

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