The mountains of Vermont are an unlikely place from which to launch a crusade to preserve the African-American spiritual tradition, but François Clemmons '67 is an unlikely crusader. His enviable career as a vocalist includes a Grammy award-winning recording of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1973 and a debut performance as a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera Studio at Carnegie Hall. Yet the alumnus is probably most recognized for the role he has played for 25 years: the friendly, singing Officer Clemmons on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."
Settled comfortably in his office at Middlebury College as the Alexander Twilight Artist-in-Residence, there is little about Clemmons that suggests a man with a calling. But beneath his warm and generous personality is a life deeply rooted in the spiritual tradition. Clemmons remembers with a musician's clarity the sound of his mother's voice and those hauntingly familiar melodies. Songs like "Steal Away" and "Go Down Moses," deceptive in their simplicity, resonate in the music of the African-American church, evoking a rich and complex narrative history.
This is music that reaches back to the earliest days ofthe African-American experience. "These songs were present at every important occasion or event of plantation life," Clemmons writes in the foreword to Kathleen Abromeit's Index to African-American Spirituals for the Solo Voice."They provided motivation and inspiration for run-away slaves and taught lessons about life in general." Over time, they have also become part of a common cultural legacy shared by Americans of all races. "Students are always surprised to learn how much of the music, food, and methods of communication they are accustomed to spring from this culture," he points out.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Clemmons grew up in the segregated neighborhoods of Youngstown, Ohio, where his teachers quickly appreciated his gifted voice. "I came to Oberlin for a visit and saw how beautiful the campus was," he says. "I was fascinated walking through old Warner Hall before they built the new Conservatory. You could hear a vocalist on one side, a pianist someplace else...it was wonderful. I had never been in that kind of an environment."
At Oberlin he hoped to find a haven of like-minded people, but the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s brought racial tensions to the surface in every corner of American society. While a voice major at the Conservatory, Clemmons participated in sit-ins and demonstrations in his hometown and fought the defacto-segregation in northeast Ohio. He also continued to indulge his growing interest in the African-American spiritual but found little support for that genre in the Conservatory. He found other opportunities to sing spirituals in the Oberlin community, encouraged by local clergy, yet was disheartened by the lack of interest among the faculty.
When dissuaded from including spirituals in his senior recital, however, Clemmons fought back. Avoiding their mention in the printed program, he nevertheless included eight selections in a carefully staged encore. "I invited my buddies from the basketball team and the football team. They screamed and yelled for spirituals."
Still, Clemmons is grateful for the exposure to opera he gained at Oberlin, which began a lifelong love affair. He carried that passion on to Carnegie-Mellon, where he earned a master of fine arts degree, followed by a big win at the regional Metropolitan Opera Auditions in Pittsburgh. That led to membership in the Metropolitan Opera Studio, through which he performed 70 roles with national opera companies.
Clemmons made his way to Manhattan, where he took on some freelance vocal work and landed a contract to appear regularly on Fred Rogers' children's show. Touring solo and with Rogers, whom Clemmons calls his "spiritual father," allowed him to witness the best of the professional music scene, and he was disturbed by the almost complete absence of any professional choral groups specializing in spirituals. "The European-based repertoires--German or French or Italian--were represented, but I never saw one that specialized in the American Negro spiritual," he says.
Moved by the struggles of his ancestors, Clemmons began programming entire concerts of spirituals, concerts that he said were supported emotionally and psychologically by presenters and musical institutions all over America.
Back in New York, he met a musician named Emery Taylor, who led a part-time singing group called the Harlem Jubilee Singers. After much thought, prayer, and encouragement from his new friend, Clemmons was inspired to found the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble as an ongoing professional group. Years of historical research followed, as Clemmons examined slave songs that combined their African musical roots with the Christian theology that was forced upon the slaves by their masters.
"Go down Moses, go down and tell old Pharaoh, tell old Pharaoh let my people go" was signifying, Clemmons wrote at the time. "The spiritual took on a double meaning to allow communication under the slavemaster's nose and to facilitate communication among slaves who wished to escape."
The ensemble began slowly as Clemmons worked to recruit volunteer members--a bassist friend, a pianist who played wonderful gospel music, and a soprano. Coordinating everyone's busy schedules was difficult, yet he remembers fondly those first tentative meetings in his living room. "It was inspired--the sounds, the textures. It was like a dream coming true."
He had no background in choral music, but Clemmons' passion for the spiritual served him well. Determined to make this important contribution to the American music scene, he invested his savings and began paying his musicians and performing with the ensemble. They got their big break in 1986 with a free concert at Federal Hall on Wall Street, which led to paying jobs, representation by the Thea Dispeker Agency, and a recording contract with Arcadia.
Clemmons is fiercely defensive of the integrity of this music, arguing forcefully for its place in the repertoire of serious American music. "Because these songs are appealing on the surface and highly accessible to the masses does not mean that they are empty and for the musically shallow. I often find that people are completely fooled by their overt simplicity and then profoundly seduced by the measure of satisfaction and awe these songs inspire. They touch places inside of us we can hardly describe."
Early on Clemmons made a decision to strive for authenticity in the ensemble's performances. "That doesn't mean boring," he argues, "but we don't try to be a jazz ensemble or a contemporary spiritual ensemble. We try to recreate that original sound as if you were to take original instruments and play Handel or Bach or Mozart. That original sound was just different, the original harmonies were different. You don't try to contemporize Mozart, you know what I mean?"
It's been 15 years since the ensemble's first meeting, years that have brought another Carnegie Hall debut, two CDs, and several tours of Europe where the group enjoys a tremendous following. Then there was Middlebury, where Clemmons was awarded an honorary PhD in 1996.
"The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble was invited to sing at Middlebury," he says. "There always seemed to be a very strong rapport with the students and faculty, so much so that they invited me to do master classes and demonstrations and recitals. I kept thinking, 'My goodness, these guys like me!'"
Still, Clemmons felt unsatisfied. "I began to want a practical application for the things I had learned--I wanted to teach." When opportunity knocked, he didn't hesitate, and today is a beloved member of the Middlebury family. A teacher, tutor, and director of the College Choir, he works with students on independent projects involving gospel, spirituals, and jazz, and extends himself into the American literature and American civilization departments. Last year's winter term at Middlebury had him in the classroom teaching "The History of the American Negro Spiritual and Its Influence on Western Civilization."
In his office overlooking the mountains, Clemmons now has time to be reflective. The spiritual is more than a historical artifact, he believes, and the renewed interest he finds in his audiences is indicative of the important role it still plays in our daily lives. "People are searching for spiritual values. At different times in our country's history, we returned to our roots in times of crisis," he says. "It is the common heritage of spiritual music that will sustain and ultimately prevail."
The image of Clemmons settled comfortably into academic life is an illusion at best. He maintains a busy touring schedule, dividing his time between the quiet Vermont college and the bustle of New York City. The Ensemble is preparing for a Russian tour and releases a new CD this month on the ARTS label.
It has been a long and sometimes difficult journey from the Midwestern steel town to the blue skies of the East Coast, but Clemmons has maintained a dedication and determination throughout, seeing himself as inheritor to the African oral tradition. "When I pick up a spiritual, there is a divine connection for me, an insight into the message, the purpose, the motivation. So many things in my life make sense when I say 'yes' to this calling."
Kirk Warren is a freelance writer, musician, and chemistry major at Oberlin College.