There’s something instantaneously familiar about “The Willow Tree,” a loner-folk gem by singer-songwriter Cleveland Francis. It the kind of song Donny Hathaway, Fred Neil, Judy Collins, or Nina Simone could’ve given hell. Delivered in Francis’ pleading, wistful tenor against subtle acoustic strumming, “The Willow Tree” reflects a world intent on injustice and misunderstanding, where the roads to peace are traveled alone and shown to others along the way who wish to find solace. Uncovered by the diggers at Forager Records, the song serves as a teaser for Beyond the Willow Tree, a comprehensive anthology of Cleveland Francis’ early work due out this spring.
Francis’ music springs has its roots in the turbulence of the 1960s, when he was a young medical student writing songs in in his spare time. Performing occasionally to coffeehouse folkies who didn’t know what to make of his songs, Francis sought to dispel the stereotypes placed upon his music. “If you were black, you played blues or soul music…I wanted to play folk music,” he later recalled. Frustrated by endless pigeonholing, Francis self-released his debut, Follow Me, in 1970 on his own label, which he dubbed ‘Soulfolk’—a term he coined at the time to describe his sound. That album is collected in full along with a single and a treasure trove of demos on Beyond the Willow Tree, shedding new light and reappraisal on Francis’ early promise. After more than half a century and a career that’s taken him from folk to cardiology to country, it seems like listeners have finally caught up to Cleveland Francis. | j annnis
For heads, by heads. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page.