Forager Records reissues undiscovered ’70s folk anthology: Cleveland Francis’ Beyond The Willow Tree

June 16 2022

The Willow Tree

Little Green Apples (Roger Miller Cover)

Early Morning Rain (Peter, Paul & Mary Cover)

When I’m Sixty Four (The Beatles Cover)

Hot Sun

Hey Jude (The Beatles Cover)

Just Think About It For A While

Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell Cover)

Rain (Jose Feliciano Cover)

Time (Pozo-Seco Singers Cover)

Getting Ready For Tomorrow (Al Wilson Cover)

With God On Out Side (Bob Dylan Cover)

What’s Wrong With The World

Ballad Of Martin Luther King


It’s Got To Get Better

Hot Sun (demo)

Early Morning Rain (demo)

Summertime (Sam Cooke Cover)

Just Think About It For A While (demo)

The Willow Tree (demo)

Beyond The Willow Tree by Cleveland Francis is out now via Forager Records, listen here.

“If you were Black, you played blues or soul music … I wanted to play folk music.” Suppressed by a music industry heavily influenced by racial stereotypes, Cleveland Francis’ stirring, contemplative, and emotionally moving recordings from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s were a political act in and of itself. Now restored and remastered by GRAMMY-award winning audio engineer, Michael Graves, the hauntingly beautiful anthology, Beyond The Willow Tree, is available via Forager Records. The 21 track double LP features Francis’ entire 1970 self-released album, Follow Me, as well as previously unreleased demos and covers of legendary folk standards, pre-order on vinyl HERE and stream it HERE.

Raised in poverty in the Deep South, Francis made his first instrument out of a cigar box and a window screen until his mother saved up quarters for an entire year to purchase him a guitar. As a teenager, he’d escape to a willow tree in his backyard – the subject of the anthology’s title and lead single – often to sit for hours writing music to release his pain. When he left home to study at Virginia’s College Of William & Mary, he was one of five Black students on campus. Enamored with a genre dominated by white performers like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joni Mitchell, and more, Francis performed his music occasionally to coffeehouses who didn’t know what to make of his songs. Encouraged by a beloved professor, Victor Liguori, Francis eventually 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. Francis shares, “This recording is possible because my professor, Victor, kept all the original tapes and copyright records. He gave these tapes to me a year before his passing and I dedicate this entire reissue project to him.”

Francis continues, “My time in Williamsburg [Virginia] was very impactful – along with much of the country I saw the need for social change and realized we now had the freedom to express it, this newly found voice came through loud and clear in my songs. Racial inequality and the Vietnam War permeated all aspects of my daily life and my music; Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was my mentor and hero. Both the fact and the manner of his death were traumatic and devastating. I penned ‘The Ballad of Martin Luther King’ “Change,’ ‘What is Wrong With The World?’ and ‘It’s Got to Get Better’ as my special tribute to a leader lost to the world too soon. I would later perform my song for Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated. I grew up in poverty, faced racial segregation every day, but there was always peace beneath the willow tree.'”

While still a practicing cardiologist (he recently retired as the president of Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates in Northern Virginia), Francis would go on to sign to Capitol Records as a country artist, releasing a string of Billboard “Hot Country Songs” singles in the early ‘90s as ‘Cleve Francis.’ Francis’ first musical love, though, was folk music, and this collection of his late ’60s/early ’70s recordings, delivered in his pleading, wistful tenor against subtle acoustic strumming, shed light on his early promise. Featuring the original artwork and liner notes printed inside the gatefold jacket of his 1970 debut album, Follow Me, Francis’ Beyond The Willow Tree anthology not only captures a moment in time but also the musings of an uncredited pioneer. He shares, “I hope this encourages Black children to pick up an acoustic guitar and learn folk music. Music should skip race and go straight to people’s hearts.”