Jimmy Collier: activist, musician

Jimmy Collier is pictured her performing during the 1960s. Collier
was known for his folk-rock music and performed with artists such
as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Collier

Oakhurst, Calif., is a long way from Fort Smith, Ark. It is also a different landscape and political climate compared to the backwoods way of life. But that never stood in the way of Jimmy Collier’s passion for music and making his voice heard.

Today his songs and recordings reside in the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute. But, growing up in rural Arkansas and being raised by his grandparents, made it difficult for Collier to find his true passion. His home was full of musical instruments and he fondly remembers his grandmother playing piano, and being surrounded by his whole family singing gospel tunes every Sunday.

As a teenager, he experimented with vocal groups, played drums and the saxophone.

“I really sucked at the sax,” he said. Moving on from doo-wop corner groups and a short career as a drummer, he eventually became a folk singer and recorded at Folkways Records. These recordings eventually made it to Washington, D.C.

In the mid 50s, Collier moved from Arkansas to Chicago to live with his uncle.

“My youth was just wild, man,” Collier said. “I needed a change.”

He joined the Air Force at 15 years old, then served two years before he was discharged for his age. At 17, Collier went to college, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community College in downtown Chicago. By 1962 he was involved in the civil rights movement.

Collier did a few odd jobs, and music gigs. But before Collier could get out of Chicago and the struggles that accompanied everyday life, a higher power came calling. One day he was asked to deliver a truckload of goods to Atlanta, and wound up staying and became a regular with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference circuit, which was headquartered there.

After having been around for a few months, the leadership took note of Collier, and soon he was asked to come “on staff,” which meant he would be receiving a subsidiary paycheck, and be a part of a certain team.

“I ended up being on the team that did non-violent demonstrations,” Collier said. “That was our team’s area of responsibility, headed up by a guy named James Bevel.”

The turbulent 60s affected Collier, and his style began to shift into more of a folk-rock demeanor. His musical style was originally more folk music, but took on a different tune. There were more meaning and messages in the lyrics. The beat was more driven, like the drums of war pounding endlessly in the night.

As the movement grew and Dr. King traveled the country, Collier was asked to sing to the crowds before Dr. King would appear to assure King’s safe entry into the venue.

“They didn’t want people to know when he would arrive because it was so dangerous back then,” Collier said. “Sometimes I had to play for an hour or so, but more than a few times it would be two hours.”

The country was in turmoil then, and riots in Detroit and Los Angeles only fueled the movement. The freedom trains and marches were instrumental to Collier’s ears. He wrote some of his most memorable songs during this time. His most famous tune was “Burn Baby Burn,” written days after the Watts riots took place. Collier and his team of musicians wrote many revised spirituals and rhythm and blues tunes to accommodate the movement. This collection of songs now belong to and reside in the Smithsonian Institute.

Collier was put into a group of musicians at the time, who were recording with Folkways Records, owned by Moe Asch. The label had artists such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

“Pete Seeger asked me to play with him on a tour with Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Mary Travers,” he said. “We ended up playing in the Houston Astrodome. Now I know how the Black Eyed Peas felt at the Super Bowl.”

As the movement picked up steam, he became more recognizable. The old white southerners had a profound hatred for the movement and anyone who worked with them. For Jimmy, it was hard to buy guitar strings or picks for his axe. Finally, after gaining the trust of the conference members and hierarchy, Collier was given a new guitar. Apparently, Dr. King’s right hand man, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, noticed Collier’s guitar was missing some strings, and was in need of a tune up. Abernathy convinced Dr. King to give Collier $500 for a new guitar.

”Man, back in 1963 that was a [heck of a] guitar for $500,” Collier said. “Most guys just hit the pawn shops on the weekends.”

For Collier, a part of his life will always be remembered for his time and relationship with the SCLC. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Collier recalled a time they were touring the South in 1966 on their non-violent demonstrations, when Dr. Abernathy asked about the relationship Collier had with his friend, Sherry Land.

When he replied, “We’re in love, man,” Abernathy pulled Dr. King aside and whispered something. Later that afternoon, Collier stood before him with Land and the two were married by Dr. King.

“I still have that marriage license signed by Dr. King,” he said. “I really wish someone had a camera at the time. But back then we were all living in the moment, a moment in time.”

In the mid-60s, Dr. King wrote a letter of recommendation for Collier, and he presented it to Harry Bridges, the head of the Longshoreman’s Union in San Francisco. That job lasted until Dr. Abernathy launched the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967, and Collier drove there to help out. Then he drove to upstate New York to help Pete Seeger on the Clearwater Project on the Hudson River. This eventually led to a concert at Carnegie Hall, arranged by classical music promoters sympathetic to the cause.

The cause appeared to be derailed when Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The emotional tragedy gripped the whole nation. The movement seemed deflated and fruitless. However, the SCLC and other leaders decided to continue the Poor People’s Campaign in Dr. King’s honor with a two-week protest by demonstrators in Washington, D.C. The same month, thousands of poor people set up a shanty town in the nation’s capitol, better known as “Resurrection City.” Collier remembers the frustration and sadness during this time.

The city was shut down in mid-June when police and the National Guard forced the whole entourage out with water cannons and horse mounted patrols. For Collier, it was time to move on. He and a friend went up to Canada and he continued his music, albeit with a different tone.

His travels ultimately led him to the foothills above Fresno, settling into a ranch in Mariposa, before moving up to the Cedar Valley area of Oakhurst. Miles above the fog, he can finally take a deep breath and look back on his colorful, yet humble career.

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