Arts & Leisure

Francois Clemmons to celebrate 400 years of Negro Spirituals

On Saturday, May 6, Francois Clemmons will perform “400 Years,” a concert of the American Negro Spiritual, the historic musical form that is the core of his life and legacy in music. The concert will take place at 7 p.m., at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury.

Photo / Frances Stone

On the occasion of his 78th birthday, François Clemmons is offering a concert titled “400 Years,” which celebrates his life and remarkable career in music.

Clemmons is calling this event a “Farewell Concert,” as he finds the rigor of a concert performance challenging at this stage of his life — though there is no doubt he will sing till his last breath.

Clemmons has sung spirituals his entire life and is a preeminent interpreter and champion today of the American Negro Spiritual. He aspires at some point to produce an album of spirituals that will be the capstone of his career. The title “400 Years” acknowledges the long history of African American music in the United States.

At this 7 p.m. concert on May 6, Clemmons will sing the spirituals that form the core of his life and legacy. The concert location is the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society at 2 Duane Court (adjacent to Middlebury Union High School). There is no charge for the concert. Donations will be gratefully accepted.

The sources of his love for this historic musical form go back the earliest stages of his life. He learned spirituals from his great-grandfather Saul.

“My granddaddy Saul was my babysitter when I was a child in Alabama — and he had a voice!” Clemmons asserted emphatically in a conversation in his home in Middlebury last week. “He sang to me all the time.”

Overcome with grief when Saul was lost in a storm and died, “I burst out in song,” he explained, reflecting this seminal relationship. From that point, Clemmons was a fixture in the church, singing in the choir: “I was the director of the choir when I was 12,” he said.

Even during his formal classical training in operatic performance at Oberlin College and Carnegie Mellon University, Francois maintained his love for the music of his roots. In 1986, Clemmons formed the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble “with the purpose of perpetuating the American Negro Spiritual through performances that reflect their traditional arrangement.”

Clemmons explained the difference between spirituals and “gospel” music. “Spirituals were sung in the fields by enslaved people. They were ‘slave songs,’ part of an oral tradition — an ‘art form of the academically unlearned.’ Gospel music is composed.”

The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, with Francois as its Director, toured nationally to major American cities and had their Carnegie Hall debut in 1991. They also toured internationally in Italy, Germany, France, Finland, Korea and Japan.

The Arts Council presents the Vermont Arts Awards in Robison Hall on October 23, 2019.

Clemmons came to Middlebury College in 1997 to be the Alexander Twilight Artist-in-Residence, the year after he received an Honorary Doctorate from Middlebury. He was already well-known to the Addison County community, having brought the Ensemble to the college for many years. He and members of the Ensemble visited classes and each year gave a concert to a full house in the Chapel.

In Clemmons, Middlebury was receiving in 1997 a world class musician, one who had sung in Carnegie Hall, trained with the Metropolitan Opera studio, and won a Grammy for his performance of “Sportin’ Life” in Porgy and Bess with the Cleveland Orchestra, a role he reprised over 200 times.

In his years on the Middlebury College faculty, Clemmons gave a concert performance at least three times a year, taught classes in the music department, directed the College Choir, and sang at commencement and other important school events.

His winter term course on American Negro Spiritual was enormously popular — and climaxed each January with a standing room only performance during Black History Month, with all the students taking part. He has sung the National Anthem often at sporting events at Middlebury and at naturalization ceremonies welcoming new Americans.

Clemmons’s 27 years as Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers Neighborhood is now iconic. The relationship between black cop with the beautiful voice and the gentle paternal man who repeated that he loved us just the way we are, has profoundly interested and moved us.

In this uncertain, angry and divided time, this time of racial reckoning, Clemmons, the man and the moment, have coincided in ways that have resonated in American culture.

Published in 2020, “Officer Clemmons: A Memoir” is the compelling story of Clemmons’s difficult childhood, born as he was in Alabama and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, his awareness of his homosexuality and its emotional and practical complications, his musical training at Oberlin and Carnegie Mellon, his introduction to Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh, his dynamic career in music, and his final landing here in Vermont.

The audio recording of the book is likewise compelling and is read by the author himself.

Clemmons brought to Vermont, a personality, life experience, and world view that Middlebury, and Vermont, badly needed. It is gratifying that he has chosen to remain a Vermonter.

Don’t miss this masterful concert of American Negro Spirituals and a chance to celebrate Clemmons’s birthday!


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