François Clemmons at Winter Convocation. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).
By Ivana Porashka
A soulful voice swirled, warming up Convocation Hall; many members of the audience closed their eyes in sweet bliss. François Clemmons, a Grammy-winning tenor and beloved cast member of the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, came to perform at the University.
“I’ve attended his concerts for nearly 20 years, and he continues to sing with the fervent passion that I remember from the first time I heard him sing,” Dean of Student Life Marichal Gentry remarked.
Clemmons’ singing career began as a child at church functions in Youngstown, Ohio. He earned his bachelor of music degree at Oberlin College and an M.F.A. from Carnegie Mellon University. The multi-talented Clemmons is the founder and director of the world-famous Harlem Spiritual Ensemble and has three publications in the works: an autobiography, a children’s story, and a volume of poetry. A singer, actor, playwright, he is best known for playing a police officer on PBS’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The show reached homes nationally in 1968, as racial tensions peaked in the US; white backlash against the civil rights movement and Black Power movement resulted in riots, protests, and violence. Apprehensive and fearful about the value of their properties and their safety, thousands of white families fled neighborhoods.
This sociopolitical context cultivates the revolutionary nature of the show’s script and characters. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood regularly showed interracial groups of students, an African American teacher and police officer, supporting a message of racial equality against a backdrop of racial contention.
Additionally, in 1968, the LGBTQ movement was slowly gaining momentum and awareness. Clemmons was asked to refrain from publicizing his identity as a gay man to avoid upsetting and losing conservative viewers of the show. The intersectionality of his sexual and racial identity created constant struggles for Clemmons in not only show business, but everyday life. He shared a few instances of blatant racism experienced in the operatic world.
During his performance, he emphasized his strong spiritual beliefs, feeling energy vibrating from his solar plexus; singing was so deeply soulful that it physically drained him. Clemmons wore a bright yellow, traditional tunic adorned with exquisite turquoise jewelry.
He expressed his affinity for creating new words, changing lyrics as he goes, and creating nicknames for people in his life: “Negro spiritual songs are based off of improvisation because slaves were not allowed to read or write,” Clemmons explained. He emphasized empathy, meditation, self-reflection, and the cathartic release of bitterness.
Vice-Chancellor John McCardell reflected on the long history he shares with Clemmons: “We met more than 25 years ago after a performance of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble at Middlebury. I went backstage afterward to say how much we and the audience enjoyed the concert and invited the group to return – which they did annually for three or four more years.”
“My colleagues all have commented on how moved they were to hear his story, some even to tears, and what a positive message he brings wherever he goes,” Gentry stated. “The Sewanee community was fortunate to have him on campus for the past few days.”
Clemmons spoke very highly regarding the University, the Vice Chancellor, and the student body as a whole. He sang well known pieces such as “Sit Down, Servant” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Encouraging the audience to join in towards the end of the event, Clemmons effortlessly filled Convocation Hall with smiles, claps, grooviness, and soul.