A profile of Francois Clemmons

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(Host) Middlebury College artist-in-residence François Clemmons is one of Vermont’s most visible reminders of the Civil Rights Movement.

He’s known for his performances of the spiritual music of southern slaves, but he’s also won accolades from opera buffs – and from a legion of people who grew up watching Mr. Rogers neighborhood.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this profile of Clemmons.

(Clemmons) "two, ready, sing! (singing)

(Zind) There’s a soft shuffle of the winter boots as members of the Middlebury College Spiritual Choir sway in the time the music during a recent rehearsal.

(Clemmons) "Oh, ladies, I’m soooo pleased!"

(Zind) As the choir’s leader, Francois Clemmons style is closer to fatherly cheerleader than stern taskmaster, and it’s easy to see why he’s such a well-liked figure on campus, someone who stands out for his exuberance, his infectious laugh, and his sartorial flair.

Clemmons’ popularity extends far beyond Middlebury. The parents of today’s students know him from his 25 year run as Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. As the first African-American regular on the television program, Clemmons was something of a barrier breaker. But there was another side to his identity that Fred Rogers asked Clemmons not to reveal.

(Clemmons) "He gave me a tremendous about of support privately, but we would not do anything that said I was an openly gay man on television because he didn’t feel and his advisors did not feel that the public was ready to have a gay character on a children’s television program."

(Zind) Clemmons learned the old Negro Spirituals from the lullabies his mother sang. But he pursued a career in opera, until one day he was pressed into singing a spiritual during an opera program.

(Clemmons) "The audience response was thunderous, and I’m not exaggerating, and that was really an awakening for me to realize how much people loved the American Negro Spirituals."

(Zind) Spiritual music became Clemmon’s passion and trademark. Unlike gospel which is a post civil war form, Negro Spirituals date back to the slavery era. They provided inspiration outside of the church because slaves sang them as they worked fields.

The slower tempo of spirituals fit the rhythm of work. It also gives them a sad quality. But Clemmons says the music brims with hope and optimism.

(Clemmons) "Maybe naive optimism also seems to be very pervasive in this repertoire. (sings ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot" It not only expresses that part that hurt us and that humiliated us, it also expresses this idea that there’s hope there’s resurrection, there’s another life."

(Zind) These same qualities struck a deep chord with those involved in the Civil Rights movement. Clemmons took part in marches in Cleveland and remembers how the music lifted people spirits.

(Clemmons) "It also bonded people together. They sang together, and we were like the walking, moving consciousness of our country saying, ‘this condition cannot continue to exist and the time is now.’

(Zind) Today, many years after it inspired slaves and civil rights marchers, Clemmons is teaching a new generation that the music of spirituals still has power.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host outro) François Clemmons and the Middlebury College Spiritual Choir will perform as part of the Martin Luther King Junior Day program Monday night at 7 at Mead Chapel on the college campus.

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