A Prayer


A Prayer - (2007)    

Joseph S. Cotter, Jr.

for medium voice and piano


As I lie in bed,
Flat on my back;
There passes across my ceiling
An endless panorama of things--
Quick steps of gay-voiced children,
Adolescence in its wondering silences,
Maid and man on moonlit summer's eve,
Women in the holy glow of Motherhood,
Old men gazing silently thru the twilight
Into the beyond.
O God, give me words to make my dream-children live.

[ 2 pages, circa 2' 15" ]

 Joseph S. Cotter, Jr. (1895-1919)


Born in an area near Bardstown, in Nelson County, Kentucky, Cotter's white father, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, was Michael J. Cotter; his mother, Martha Vaughn Cotter, was black; and the two did not live together. Cotter learned to read at the age of three, but called off his formal education in third grade to work and help his poverty-stricken family. He worked at a variety of jobs as a day laborer, a teamster, rag-picker, tobacco stemmer, prize fighter, whiskey distiller, and brick hand, all the while becoming self-educated. At twenty-two he enrolled in a Louisville night school at the primary level and accomplished much, beginning a long career in education, including serving as the principal of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School for nearly 50 years.

Cotter served as the director of the Louisville Colored Orphan's Home Society, belonged to the Negro Educational Association, the NAACP, the Story Tellers League, and the Author's League of America. His major fame lies in his accomplishments as a writer. He was a storyteller, a dramatist, and a poet of many moods and styles. His early poems were published in the local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, and one poem, "The Tragedy of Pete," won first place in an Opportunity prize contest. Among his many published books included, A Rhyming (1895), Links of Friendship, (1899), the play, Caleb, the Degenerate (1903), A White Song and a Black One (1909), Negro Tales (1912), and finally Collected Poems (1938). [ 1 ]


Written for a medium voice, the gentle vocal line and simple piano accompaniment are meant to convey the gentle images of the text itself as the poet and author dreams life into his "children." It is a waking dream, and as such should be performed simply. Cotter's images are life cycle images, from birth to old age, for the stories we tell ourselves are of a lifetime, ours as well as in the lives and examples of others.




The score for A Prayer is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.


A Prayer





[ 1 ]    For additional references, see Kerlin, Robert T., Negro Poets and their Poems. The Associated Publishers. Washington, D.C.: 1923. The poem may be found in The Book of American Negro Poetry. Ed. James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922. It is from Johnson's wonderful anthology that I have drawn many texts for song settings, including those of Campbell and Johnson.