× Upcoming Concert Welcome Artistic Leadership Tickets + Events Donate Board of Directors & Administration Staff Past Concerts
James Cockerham
Fantasia on "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

James Cockerham
Born: 1948, Wilkesboro, North Carolina

Fantasia on “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

A prolific composer and playwright, North Carolina native James Cockerham earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. During a 40-year career in government, Cockerham, who trained as a pianist, also worked part-time as a musician, producing six albums, four CDs and four musical stage productions. At age 65, he pivoted to work as a full-time musician and, 40 years after earning his bachelor’s degree, he earned a master’s certificate in Orchestra for Film and TV from Berklee College of Music in Boston. His Fantasia on “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was given its world premiere at the 2019 Gateways Music Festival at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, by the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, a 125-piece symphony orchestra consisting of exceptionally talented musicians of African descent from major orchestras all over the world.

The anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” set to words written by James Weldon Johnson with music by Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, was first sung at the NAACP convention in 1919, 300 years after Africans were enslaved in America.

Cockerham wrote the following about his Fantasia:

Imagine the sounds of percussive instruments being heard from a distance while standing in the middle of a lush verdant green forest. Drums and a tambourine play a 12/8 African rhythm: Boom tah-kah-tah-kah, Boom tah-kah-tah-kah, Boom tah-kah-tah-kah, Boom Boom Boom…. The distant rhythm repeats itself over and over again, but it is quiet at the top of the mountain.

Listen. The low hum of strings can now be heard, like a sound from the earth in rotation. The sounds grow louder as woodwinds mimic birds singing. The melodies are the same ones heard when windows are opened in springtime.

The beautiful scenery of Africa is seamless and endless. But there are more chapters in this history book.

The Ship. Imagine the ship being filled with men, women and children from different villages and tribes, now captured and chained together. They are on a ship where urinating, defecating, eating and drinking all take place in the same small space. Brass and double reeds capture the sound of regurgitation. Stringed instruments sound like a swarm of bees approaching. They grow louder and louder as the journey continues. Woodwinds use Morse Code ..-. .-. .. to play “FREE” as they beg for help. The crying, angry outbursts and pleas for help, in many different languages, go unheard. The chaotic tension crescendos to a deafening triple fortissimo as a triangle and gong bring the captives out of this dark-colored trance. Soon, these enslaved Africans will be sold. The ship reaches America and lands in a place called Virginia.

Africans in America. It is 1619, the beginning of the European Baroque musical style. The enslaved Africans hear a string quartet playing a minuet in this new place called America. Entertainment at the plantation was a grand event. But there was nothing grand about the enslaved Africans working in the hot fields.

New Music in America. The musical journey continues. Years, decades and centuries have gone by. Work songs, spirituals, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, hip hop, rap and other music genres have been created by the descendants of the Africans who were chained together on the ships that brought them to America. Out of the chaos came new music styles and genres. We continue to listen, the contrabass is heard playing a blues and jazz melodic line, representing the call. The woodwinds and brass answer with a gospel response.