Percy Clerc

Percy Clerc leads La Guiannee

Deeply connected to the history of his home, Percy Clerc kept the old traditions and stories alive for a new generation, becoming the eccentric bard of historic Prairie du Rocher.

Arthur Percy Clerc was born on June 24, 1902, in the small house in Prairie du Rocher that he would call home for the rest of his life. He was the eldest son of Charles Clerc and Germaine Albert, and his family tree is full of names from the county’s French colonial history – Blais, Barbeau, Louvier, Drury, Goder, Melliere, Bienvenu. By the time of Percy’s birth, his family had lived in Randolph County for almost two centuries. He was able to claim descent from Philippe Bienvenu, one of the early French settlers of Kaskaskia, who arrived in Illinois in 1719. His maternal great-grandfather, the French-born Antoine Albert, was one of the first men appointed by the state legislature to serve as a trustee of the commons land in Prairie du Rocher.

 

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Prairie du Rocher

Percy’s parents integrated him into the religious and social world of Prairie du Rocher from his infancy. He was baptized at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church by Father Charles Eschmann on July 6, 1902. His maternal uncle, William Albert, and paternal aunt, Olivia Clerc, served as godparents. Percy grew up at the head of a pack of younger brothers. Ignatius was born in 1904, and Oliver, William, and Clarence soon followed. According to family history, Percy’s brothers affectionately called him by the nickname “Wooz.” The boys grew up on the family farm, helping their father with chores like milking cows and feeding pigs before heading to the local elementary school. Their childhood days were filled with hard work on the farm, but their life was also colored by the rich musical tradition of the region. Percy’s maternal grandmother, Sarah Louvier Albert, was one of his earliest music teachers, sharing French folk songs with her grandsons. His great-grandmother, Sophia Blais Hermanietz, who had lived in Prairie du Rocher since the early days of the nineteenth century, was also nearby to help recall the old songs. Already a budding writer, Percy often wrote his own lyrics to these old melodies.

The early days singing with his grandmother sparked a lifelong love of music and history in Percy. As a child, he also began participating in one of the most unique of Prairie du Rocher’s local traditions: La Guiannee. Part caroling, part mischief, the tradition takes place annually on New Year’s Eve. A group of costumed singers and musicians gathers in the small town and travels from house to house, serenading local residents. The song, always sung in French, extends wishes for a happy new year – especially for the eldest daughter of the house, who is often asked to come forward for a special serenade – and then asks the residents for refreshments. After partaking, the group heads to the next home to sing again for both good wishes and good food and drink. Percy’s father, Charles, was one of the leaders of the group, having joined when he was a boy in the 1870s.

By the time Percy joined in the Guiannee celebrations, the tradition had been part of life in Prairie du Rocher for almost two centuries. The colonial settlers of the region brought the holiday tradition with them from France. Historians have long debated the exact origins of the celebration, tracing it to northern France and even speculating that it was begun by the ancient Celts who once populated the region. The name is generally thought to represent the old French tradition of gathering mistletoe (“le gui”), which was said to symbolize peace and love, at the end of the year. The notion of blessings and love bestowed is a thread that runs from these ancient traditions through to the celebrations of La Guiannee in Illinois. Traditionally, many believed that the homes that welcomed the singers and provided them with food and drink would receive good luck for the year to follow, while houses that refused them could expect to be cursed with bad fortune. Long after the French had ceased to govern Randolph County, the Guiannee tradition continued in Prairie du Rocher. By the turn of the twentieth century, only three communities in America – Prairie du Rocher, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and Vincennes, Indiana – still regularly incorporated the singing into their holiday celebrations.

In January 1914, when Percy was eleven, the Chester Tribune described the Guiannee celebrations that had taken place in Prairie du Rocher a few days earlier: “Many of our citizens were masked New Year’s Eve in celebration of the Guiannee and created a great deal of interest as they went about the streets of town, accompanied by a chorus which sang at different points in town the well-known French song which for years is sung in connection with the occasion.” The paper added that, although La Guiannee was a tradition from a time long gone by, “the custom loses none of its popularity and interest with the passage of the years.” The article paints a vivid picture of the 1913 celebrations, describing a New Year’s Eve party held at the famous Brickey House in Prairie du Rocher: “The time was spent in dancing and other amusements until the ‘Guiannee’ came, which stopped the dancing, for all the young people were eager to see them. After the ‘Guiannee’ left, the young people continued to dance until late in the morning when refreshments were served. The young folks bid each other a Happy New Year and were off.”

Later that same year, Percy was confirmed by Father William Van Delft at St. Joseph’s, selecting the confirmation name of “John.” He was sponsored for confirmation by one of his Albert cousins, Leander Melliere. At the same time, Percy faced a difficult decision common to many sons of farmers: whether to remain in school after finishing the eighth grade or stay home to help run the family farm. He decided to do the latter, helping Charles manage the farm while his brothers continued their education. The 1920 census finds seventeen-year-old Percy at home, helping his father with farm work, while all of his brothers are still attending school.

One member of the family is sadly missing from that 1920 census record: Percy’s mother, Germaine. In 1918, while pregnant with a daughter, Germaine became one of the victims of the worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic. That December, she came down with the flu at home in Prairie du Rocher. After traveling to the maternity hospital in St. Louis, both she and her unborn child died a few days before Christmas. She was 37 years old. Percy, who was fifteen when Germaine died, mourned the loss of his mother for the rest of his life. After his own death, a poem dedicated to her was found among his belongings. The fragment describes Germaine as “blooming in beauty,” with “modest grace.” The final lines recall “the intonation of mother’s voice,” a link to the lovely music of his childhood.

 

Percy Clerc, 1940

After Germaine’s death, Percy became an even more vital member of the household, shouldering the daily business of the farm. As his brothers left the house, established their careers, and began their own families, Percy remained a mainstay on the family homestead, caring for his aging father and becoming a beloved part of the Prairie du Rocher community. He was a devout parishioner of St. Joseph’s, as well as a member of the local Knights of Columbus organization. Although he never attended high school, Percy strongly valued education, often privately supporting the tuition costs for his nieces and nephews and teaching music lessons to children at the local elementary school. He was also an early supporter of Gibault High School in nearby Waterloo, as well as a major champion for the local Boy Scouts. Above all else, however, he was a devoted collector of songs, stories, and traditions from his hometown, becoming a valuable resource for local residents and academic historians alike.

As Percy reached adulthood, the generation that came before him slowly began to fade away. Percy’s life had been filled with important women who had witnessed the changes in Prairie du Rocher over the course of a century. His great-grandmother, Sophia, died in 1922 at the age of 91; his beloved 77-year-old grandmother, Sarah, followed in 1935. Thanks to Percy’s keen interest in the stories they told, however, their deaths didn’t break the link to the past. Percy absorbed the stories they told him and transformed them into songs and poems. Although his first language was English, he also learned French as a way to continue his dialogue with Prairie du Rocher’s colonial history.

Percy had learned the oral tradition of his hometown, but he seemed to understand the need to record the music, history, and stories of the area in a more durable form. During his lifetime, he published two collections of poetry and songs, using the name “Arthur P. LeClerc” as his nom de plume. La Chansonnier de Prairie du Rocher was published in November 1976, and three years later, he followed up its publication with Echoes of Old Prairie du Rocher. He also worked with John W. Allen, curator of the museum at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, to make recordings of the folk songs of the town. In the 1940s, Allen recorded Percy’s father, Charles, singing “La Guiannee,” as part of his attempt to preserve the tradition in audio form. Some of Allen’s recordings of the music performed by the Prairie du Rocher Guiannee singers and musicians are now held in the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center.

Allen’s recordings offer us a snapshot of the Guiannee celebrations that the Clerc family participated in during the 1940s, but the tradition continued to evolve with the times. Percy’s father, Charles, continued to be one of the leaders of the Guiannee singers throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with Percy taking on a major supporting role in keeping the tradition going. It was a real family affair, as the group was often accompanied on the violin by Percy’s brother, Bill Clerc, in later years. In the 1930s, under the leadership of longtime resident Noah Duclos, the celebrations were revamped slightly: “The song at that time was still being sung, but the celebration, it was thought, was assuming too much the air of a Halloween revelry, with the singers masking and dressing in comic costumes. To this type of celebration some of the townspeople seemed to object. Then, too, many pranks were performed and blame placed on the masked revelers.”

 

Percy wears his unusual costume to perform La Guiannee, 1961

In response, Duclos and his fellow leaders “started a movement toward reviving the custom precisely as it was carried out in the days of their forefathers,” which included distributing a printed text of the song, likely featuring Percy’s rendering of the French lyrics. For a time, the group dressed “as French officers and silk-clad aristocrats,” with Duclos acting as commandant, giving “orders in French to his men as they marched from house to house.” By the 1940s, the committee of singers had again relaxed a bit. In 1949, Charles Clerc told the Southern Illinoisan, “Today the singers of La Guiannee do not dress in any aristocratic fashion but merely mask and put on some odd-looking garment to add to the evening’s fun. I think that is more like it was carried out in the old world. We want to keep the tradition as near like it was in olden times as we can.” Percy fashioned a particularly unique court jester costume to wear during the annual celebration, made of corn husks sewn to an old pair of blue pajamas. The costume is commemorated with a photo displayed in the museum at nearby Fort de Chartres.

Even more changes were on the horizon. In a 1954 newspaper article that was printed across the country, John Sembower noted that the “thread of the custom here came nearest to being broken in recent years, but was kept alive under the leadership of Thomas J. Conner, a local merchant and direct descendant of a very early French family.” The Conner family joined with the Clercs to keep the music alive, but it became clear that it was time to open up the ranks of the Guiannee group. Sembower added, “About the only change, which is yet not accepted without grumbling by some of the oldsters, is that women instead of only men and boys now are included. It is agreed, however, that the feminine influence has had a ‘civilizing effect’ on a ribaldry and boisterousness that in early days marked the tour of the singers from house to house, where they successfully partake of refreshments.” As the years went on, the group used a school bus to travel from house to house before returning to the local American Legion hall by midnight.

The following year, Charles Clerc decided that it was time for Percy to take on a more prominent role with La Guiannee. John Allen wrote in the Southern that a “father and son team, Charles and Percy Clerc, are the song leaders for La Guiannee. The function is handed down religiously from generation to generation.” As Percy took on more responsibility for the keeping of the tradition, the Guiannee celebrations gained more outside interest as well. The singers began performing at folk festivals in Carbondale and St. Louis, showcasing Prairie du Rocher’s unique musical culture. In 1959, the group performed for a very special guest: Jacqueline Bertrand, the Deputy Consul General of France at Chicago. Her visit to the French colonial sites of Randolph County – the first official visit by a representative of the French government since General Lafayette’s in 1825 – was capped off with a special performance by the Guiannee singers.

 

Percy with his niece, Maggie, 1974

Charles Clerc died in Prairie du Rocher two years later at the age of 86, and Percy became the patriarch of both the Clerc family and the Guiannee celebrations. Though he never married, he was a devoted uncle to his many nieces and nephews. He was equally devoted to maintaining the unique character of his hometown. One of his nieces, Maggie Kurtz, believes that “had it not been for his dedication to save [La Guiannee], it likely would have ended.” Indeed, the 1970s brought about a renaissance for history and culture in Prairie du Rocher. In August 1970, the first Rendezvous celebration was held at nearby Fort de Chartres, bringing people from all over the country to join in the fun with canoe races, tomahawk-throwing contests, and other activities reminiscent of the area’s French colonial past. Six years later, the people of Prairie du Rocher also revived the Twelfth Night Ball, a tradition that hadn’t been celebrated since World War II. Percy played a major part in resurrecting the gala. During the ball, a special cake is served. Inside are four beans, and the first man who discovers a bean in his piece of cake is crowned king. Those who find the remaining three become members of his royal court. Percy’s focused attention was key to making these traditions happen.

Percy continued to lead the singing of La Guiannee for the rest of his life. In December 1980, he performed for the final time with the group, calling out the French lyrics and tapping a stick so the rest of the group could follow. On January 12, 1981, Percy was at home in his small house on the Clerc family farm when the building caught fire. Seventy-eight-year-old Percy perished in the blaze, his body found near the doorway. Though there’s no way to know exactly what transpired that afternoon, the Clerc family strongly believes that Percy initially made it out of the house, but decided to go back inside to try to save his papers, which included his own poetry and songs as well as historical documents about Prairie du Rocher. Fragments of some of these papers were later discovered in the ashes of his home. Percy’s life was celebrated in St. Joseph’s a few days later. The church was packed with members of Percy’s family and community, and both Bishop Cosgrove of the Belleville diocese and Father Edwin Hustedde, the founder of Gibault High School, joined Father Peter Hsu in celebrating the funeral mass. His death was felt by many to represent a sort of end of an era for the community. Gerry Franklin, who knew Percy well and who helps carry on the Guiannee tradition in Prairie du Rocher today, noted that “when Percy died, it was almost like we turned a page here in town.” For the community, Franklin explains, Percy was “a stepping stone to the past.”

 

Percy leads La Guiannee, 1970s

Though nearly four decades have passed since Percy’s death, his influence is still felt throughout Prairie du Rocher. His contributions to the community continue to be remembered and celebrated today. Franklin describes Percy as someone who felt a great deal of responsibility to his home and his people. Percy “felt a duty to his fellow man,” Franklin explains, “and to the world in general. That’s how Percy lived.” Percy seemed to innately understand a major truth about local traditions and history: they’re nothing without the people who work to maintain and cherish them. Historical buildings and artifacts are important, but they need people to breathe life into them and give them meaning. Percy breathed life into the history of Prairie du Rocher for decades. He learned the stories and songs of the past and – most importantly – he shared them with his neighbors and friends.

La Guiannee continues to be sung every New Year’s Eve in Prairie du Rocher, just as it was during Percy’s lifetime and for centuries before. In December 1981, shortly after Percy’s passing, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote, “The crowned heads of France have long gone, the walls of once-powerful Fort de Chartres have crumbled, and the mighty Mississippi has changed its course, but La Guiannee lives on.” Even as the generations move on, and the river threatens, every New Year’s Eve the people of Prairie du Rocher still dress in costume and gather to sing La Guiannee. The musical heritage of the community, perhaps one of the most unique and enduring historical traditions in all of Randolph County, lives on, thanks to the efforts of devoted citizens like Percy Clerc.

In 1972, Percy composed a special poem to mark the 250th anniversary of his beloved Prairie du Rocher. The final stanza is a beautiful ode to the resilience of the community – and also a fitting description of the quiet, resilient life led by Percy Clerc.

Time goes on in its own exacting way;
Still the hopes for fulfillment remain today.
Despite the neglect through the years gone by,
Traces of my historical past refuse to die.
And the church’s lofty spire, so pure and fine,
Ever reminds my children of Things Divine.
A small village, quiet and hidden away,
My name is … Prairie du Rocher.

 

Percy Clerc was inducted into the Randolph Society in 2020.