James V. Cockerham

The voice inside my head screams again. It is invisible, yet real. The haunting feeling inside pulls me deeper into an illusionary state of being where reality and fiction wrestle with each other. I look out of my window and watch the trees dance with the wind. It is a new day 

bringing with it memories, music, and dreams of success.


Cockerham Family
The composer James V. Cockerham as a baby on his mother’s lap in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, 1948.

Memories of an excited toddler sitting on his aunt’s lap as he plays the piano. A little boy standing on his tiptoes, reaching as high as he can, to touch the notes on the same piano.

Daddy watches Westerns on TV. He yells from the next room, “James Vinson, get off the piano making all that noise.” Later, as he begins to recognize melodies being played, he now yells from the next room, “James Vinson, shut the door, making all that noise.” The door closes and the room becomes quiet. A chord is played on the piano. The sound created by holding down the sustain pedal pulls me into the piano and soon, the sound fades to silence. Music has captured another soul.


Daddy died, silence screamed, but no tears would fall. Cerebral hemorrhage was the cause, “He won’t be coming home!” Too young to understand what had just happened, there I stand, looking out of the window, listening to the rain. 


My cousins gave me their beginner piano books and I taught myself to read the music.


There was no money for piano lessons. Mom called our bills “done’s” because they were so far past due. It took months to pay for a fifteen dollar clarinet,  purchased from our neighbor,  so I could participate in the Elementary School band. A third-grader playing, “Going Home” by Antonin Dvorak on his new clarinet realizes music can be felt. 





Playing piano for the Vacation Bible School choir led a seventh-grader to be invited to play for a church choir.  It was a new experience. The pastor said, “Son, you need the church and the church needs you.” Playing the piano became a way of life. 


My major was Sociology at Livingstone College. Songwriting began when my Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. big brother told me to write a song. However, six albums, five CDs, and four musical stage productions do not stop the voice inside my head. It amplifies and won’t leave. My dreams have become nightmares. Voices taunt me. ”You are too old to experience a successful music career.” “Most musicians, your age, are retiring. You will never achieve success. You are too old.” Thoughts have become caught in an infinity loop. Soon, my son enters the room.


“If you love what you are doing, keep doing what you love.” 

He inquires, “The look on your face says, you have something on your mind. What is it?” I confess that my mind was overwhelmed by thoughts that success may never come. He asked, “What is success to you?” I responded, “Having number one songs on the Billboard charts, winning Grammy and Stellar Awards, placing music in Broadway shows, etc.”  He smiled and asked, “Would you consider Bob Marley to be a successful musician?” Of course, I responded. He continued. Are you aware that, during his lifetime, he was never nominated for, nor received, a Grammy Award? None of his songs were in movies or in Broadway shows? He left the room. A thunderbolt struck the voice inside my head. The voice began to speak, but this time the words changed. I heard, “Never give up on your dreams.”  Do not try to measure your success by age, money, nor how well you are known in your circles. The voice is now speaking louder than before.


A call was received from DJs in New Zealand and Chicago. They are playing my music from an album that is over 43 years old. I received a video of people dancing to, “Everybody Ought to Praise His Name.”  A gospel jazz song featuring children singing and instrumental solos by piano, bass, and drums. Some say it is music that was before its time.


So, perhaps the voice is right. I love what I am doing and will never give up on my dreams!





From the mind of a composer

From the Mind of a composer blog


AFRICA 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. 

LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING It was February 12, 1900 when 500 elementary school children gathered to celebrate President Lincoln’s birthday. They recited words written by James Weldon Johnson. 

Five years later, his brother J. Rosamond Johnson set his brother’s words to music. It was sung at the NAACP convention in 1919, 300 years after the Africans were enslaved in America. 

It was August 2019, 400 years after the enslavement, when this same song, written by two African American brothers and arranged by an African American Composer, was performed by an orchestra composed of 125 classically trained musicians of African descent at the Gateways Music Festival, Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, NY. 

The words are as relevant to African Americans today as they were in 1900. The descendants of the Africans brought to America should indeed continue to, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.“

What did you hear and feel as you listened? What stories have you heard about slave ships and the enslavement of African Americans? What impact do you think it has today on lifestyles of African Americans?