During the years following the Civil War, Itawamba County saw the largest influx of settlers it had seen since its founding in 1836. Not unlike those hardy settlers of earlier years, these people came to Itawamba County in search of a better life. The post Civil War settlers of Itawamba County had left their homes in states east of Mississippi and brought with them not only their household possessions, but their traditional customs as well.
Today, many people of Itawamba County, Mississippi are direct descendants of these hardy post war settlers, and like physical possessions, folk customs of an earlier age have been passed down through the generations. The Cockrell family of Itawamba County is one such family.
Perhaps the one thing the Cockrell family of Itawamba County is associated with the most, is their music. The members of the Cockrell family were Sacred Harp singers. Sacred Harp music (four note singing) dates back to the 1600s in England. The Old Cockrell Singing at New Home Baptist Church east of Fulton was named for this family as well as the Marion Singing at Oak Grove Methodist Church north of Mantachie.
Grandpa Marion Cockrell would spend hours upon hours walking up and down the front porch of his dog-trot home singing "in the old harp," as his arm would swing up and down keeping time with the melody of the music he loved so much. During cotton picking time, on a hot September day in 1944, Grandpa Marion died. His memorial service was held outside under the ancient oak trees at Center Star Cemetery in Itawamba County. As the mourners fanned themselves with fold-out paper fans, Grandpa Marion's elderly sister, Nancy Cockrell Thornberry, sat in a cane-bottom chair before the crowd and sang a special song for her brother. With her head bowed and her eyes shut in respect, the beautiful melody of "Amazing Grace" a cappella in the old harp style sounded over the silent hillside.
The Cockrell family not only sang, but were instrumentalists as well. Uncle Duff Cockrell played the fiddle left handed. During 1903, Jordan Cockrell left the rural hills of Itawamba County by train from Guntown and journeyed to St. Louis, Missouri where he won the World's Fiddling Championship at the World's Fair. Many times Grandpa Elijah Cockrell and his son Billy would travel to nearby Guntown, north of Mantachie in their wagon. As always, on their journey back home, they would see Grandma Nancy's house appear on the horizon in the Centerville community. As the wagon traveled closer they would see her disappear into the house and return to her rocker on the porch with her fiddle and bow in hand. As they would approach her house she would say "Let's play a few tunes," and before they would return to their journey home they always had to play "Leather Britches" for her. Grandma Nancy could also play the dulcimer. When she was three years old, her father, Elum, bought her a used hammer dulcimer and of course the dulcimer came with her to Itawamba County during 1873.
The Cockrell families would visit among themselves and make music way into the late hours of the night. As the women folk would sit around the fireplace smoking their stone pipes, the beautiful melody of the fiddles could be heard over the surrounding hillsides of the community.
Today, the melodious sounds of the Cockrell music has all but stopped. All that is left of the earlier generation are dusty fiddles, sacred harp songbooks and faded ribbon awards from fiddling contests stored away in attics and closets. These mementos are a silent reminder of the beautiful melodies that once echoed across the hills and hollows of Itawamba County.
Photographs: The Cockrell Family String Quartet at a 4th of July Celebration at the Lee County Courthouse during the 1890's (top photo); Cockrell family Sacred Harp Song Book (middle photo); Dr. Marion Albert Cockrell and wife Elizabeth Gillentine Cockrell, Sacred Harp Singers (bottom photo)
The Elum Cockrell Family Lineage