Debbie Croft: Cowboy of culture still sings from the heart

Jimmy Collier will turn 70 this year. Reminiscing on a long and eventful life, this African American folk singer and musician is pleased with how far he’s come. And with how far America has come.

He was born and reared in the Midwest, and both his grandparents were musicians. His memories revolve around family, music and all things western.

During the early civil rights days he traveled with Martin Luther King Jr.

Occasionally he spoke, but most of the time he sang and played his music to open the rallies. He also provided transportation for people who wanted to vote.

King officiated at the marriage ceremony of Collier and his first wife, and he still has the marriage certificate containing King’s signature.

“Dr. King was a minister and kept that his first priority,” Collier said. “He wanted rallies to be as nonviolent as possible.”

Over the years, Collier has remained current with national affairs, politics, American history and the U.S. economy. Yet the “hard political sell” isn’t where he wants to be.

“I just want to be visible and connect with people,” he said.

Starting in his teen years, he played drums or saxophone in bands. Eventually he settled on singing, songwriting and playing the guitar. In his former musical career, he toured with Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Woody Guthrie and others.

Collier says King and Seeger were the biggest influences in his life, shaping the direction his values and his music would take.

“A lot of things can be said in a song that can’t be spoken outright,” he said.

But now although he says discrimination does still exist, he believes we’ve made much progress. He chooses to look at life as being half full instead of half empty.

After retiring from a corporate career, he and his second wife, Catherine Lowrey-Collier, lived in Mariposa for a number of years. Lowrey-Collier served as director of Mariposa County Arts Council for a time. While there Collier played in rock bands and rhythm-and-blues bands with some of Mariposa’s finest musicians.

Today he stays busy writing historical songs, performing living history as a re-enactor and spending time with his growing family.

He claims he’s not really famous. Yet he has performed in Carnegie Hall, at the Houston Astrodome and appeared on “Sesame Street.” Some of his songs are on file at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

He still plays music here and there and gives interviews. On days at home, he’s usually found in his study.

He has recently taken up learning ventriloquism to use in his performances for children and adults, which he’s found to be very effective.

Even with notable accomplishments behind him, he’s still making plans for the future. He views this period of his life right now as experimentation time. His latest venture is to audition for “America’s Got Talent.” It’s his attempt at bringing respect to the banjo.

“We don’t know how long we have left,” he said. “Some people probably think I’m dead.”

As a kid, Collier wore a cowboy hat. His grandpa told him it was OK – even though few people had heard of black cowboys. As to this segment of history, which Collier knows well, records show 10,000-15,000 black cowboys existed in the late 1800s. Another 15,000-25,000 included nationalities such as Irish, Polish, Hispanic and Native American.

It was on a chilly afternoon last month when I was treated to a private concert in Collier’s home near Oakhurst. A fire burned in the wood stove. On the walls photos hung of Native American and Western scenes. A cast-metal sculpture of a cowboy and horses rested on the coffee table.

Dressed in jeans, a denim shirt, black vest and cowboy boots, Collier sat strumming his banjo, tapping his foot, and singing, “No mountain too high no river too wide have some climbing faith.”

Music by the Rev. Gary Davis, Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban and Greg Allman are also some of his favorites. “I just like music that seems to touch the species’ heart,” he said.

His album “Everybody’s Somebody” echoes that sentiment.