by John Black
On Monday, January 20 the Vice-Chancellor’s Office sponsored Dr. Francois S. Clemmons’ performance of spiritual songs in Guerry Auditorium to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Clemmons, a tenor and founder of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, lives and works in Middlebury, VT, where McCardell served as president emeritus of Middleburry College from 1992 until 2004.
Sporting an untarnished purple and gold Sewanee baseball cap as well as a vibrant baby blue and gold robe that draped to the floor, Clemmons took the stage with a bright smile, just as he did under the role of Officer Clemmons in the children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A Birmingham native, Clemmons shared stories of his upbringing in the songs that he performed. “My great-grandmother, grandmother, and mom all sang. I was singing in the womb,” said Clemmons to the audience to introduce his performance.
A self-proclaimed living evidence of musical therapy, Clemmons performed traditional songs including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “By an’ By,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.” He also performed one of Dr. King’s favorite songs, “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” sharing with the audience how music helped him recover from a coma several years ago. The many sing-along-style pieces warmly engaged the audience, which was filled with mostly members of the Sewanee community who were well-acquainted with most of the songs’ lyrics, though some students were among the crowd.
After all fourteen pieces were bellowed over the polyphonic mesh of accompanying pianist Kate Gridley with outstretched arms, and interjecting grunts and claps Clemmons brought the audience to their feet as he invited us to join hands across the aisles, swaying and singing rounds of, “we shall overcome, oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome today.”