The following excerpt is from a story that originally ran in the winter 2023 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. Read the full story here. – Ed.
In the Southwest Louisiana community where Cleveland “Cleve” Francis Jr. M.A. ’69 grew up, the path to town led through a nearby landfill. At times, smoke from burning trash blew soot onto the clothes his mother had hung out to dry. Railroad tracks marked the dividing line in the racially segregated town of Jennings. The all-Black high school, named after Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, received hand-me-down books with missing sections and writing on the pages. Francis watched his mother, Mary, walk seven miles to work as a maid, and his stepfather toil as a day laborer.
Alongside these stark realities, Francis absorbed the rich musical culture for which Louisiana is known — gospel, blues, jazz and zydeco — and listened on the radio to Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Mahalia Jackson, Johnny Mathis and others.
“Everybody had some kind of musical talent,” he says. “I knew people who played harmonica, banjo, guitar, trumpet and saxophone.”
Lacking money to buy an instrument of his own, he made a makeshift guitar using one of his stepfather’s cigar boxes. He cut a hole in the middle, fashioned strings from window-screen wire, crafted a neck using a board and taught himself to play.
Impressed by her son’s resourcefulness, Mary Francis saved spare coins for a year to buy a $25 Sears & Roebuck Silvertone six-string guitar. However, she warned young Cleveland — nicknamed Cleve — that if his grades started to drop, the guitar would go up in the attic.
Music became Francis’ respite. He would sit for hours under the giant weeping willow tree in their yard, playing his guitar and writing songs. More than a decade later, while he was pursuing a graduate degree in biology at William & Mary, those memories inspired the song “The Willow Tree” on an album he recorded in 1969 called “Follow Me”:
When the world’s against you and you’re down and out … you just follow me and you’ll see there’s peace beneath the willow tree.
The late W&M sociology professor Victor Liguori, a mentor who recognized Francis’ talent as a musician after hearing him play at the campus pub Hoi Polloi, pooled funds with his colleagues to pay for a recording session in Norfolk, Virginia, resulting in the production of about 250 copies of the album. These came out after Francis graduated from William & Mary, and he sold them at periodic performances while attending medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University. He labeled the album’s style “soulfolk,” combining elements of different genres and including his own compositions as well as songs by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and the Beatles.
Although music took a back seat while Francis completed medical studies and established his cardiology practice in Northern Virginia, he has returned throughout his life, metaphorically, to that willow tree back home in Louisiana.
In the late 1980s, a chance encounter with a patient’s family member sparked a series of events that led to a recording contract in Nashville, Tennessee. Francis took a leave of absence from his clinic to explore an alternate career as a professional musician.
The anomaly of a Black man performing country music attracted a wave of media coverage. Former NBC “Today” show host Katie Couric interviewed him in 1992, and his story was highlighted in The New York Times, USA Today, People and Jet magazines, Entertainment Weekly and other publications.
All the positive publicity did not translate into widespread album sales, however. After three years, Francis returned to his medical practice, feeling as though the odds were stacked against him and he’d never attain the level of mainstream success he wanted.
Today, it’s apparent that he made more of an impact through his music than he previously realized.
One of his country albums, “Walkin’,” is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 in Washington, D.C. At a 2021 event celebrating the contributions of people of color in country music, the Rosedale Collective — a label dedicated to cultivating and promoting underrepresented voices in country, folk and Americana music — presented Francis with its first Hazelhurst Award in recognition of his influence. He was also honored with the Black Opry Icon Award in 2021.
In June 2022, Los Angeles-based Forager Records re-released Francis’ 1969 recordings in an anthology titled “Beyond the Willow Tree,” hailed by reviewers as a little-known gem. A July 2022 article in The Washington Post highlights recent acclaim for Francis and quotes fellow musicians describing him as an inspiration and visionary who was instrumental in founding the Black Country Music Association and convened one of its first meetings.
Seeing the re-release of the album he recorded as a graduate student at William & Mary was an emotional experience for Francis, now 77.
“I was almost in tears because it impressed me how significant that music was to people back then — and that those songs I was writing would interest people today,” he says. “I was also impressed by Victor Liguori’s vision. He said, ‘You have to record some of this.’ If he hadn’t insisted, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Read the full article on the W&M Alumni Magazine website.