Walnut Valley musician reflects on musical talents

Billy Joe Collins plays guitar during one of the songs at his camp at the Walnut Valley Festival. Collins has been playing guitar since he was 51 years old. (Kylie Stamper/Collegian photographer)

By Bailey VenJohn
Staff reporter

Billy Joe Collins is 76 years old. Despite being a part of the older crowd at the Walnut Valley Festival he still considers himself a newbie to the festivities that take place in Winfield, Kan.

“This is my fourth year. I was in business until about 14 years ago and I didn’t have time then to make it to all the things that go on.”

Collins attends the event yearly with the same crowd. He said the group originally invited him a couple years back and he’s come back with them since.

The harmonica is Collins’ specialty although he can play the guitar as well. He learned the harmonica as a child and didn’t pick up the guitar until he was 51.

“I had seen people playing them and I wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument. There was a lot of old tunes that I wanted to play so I just started playing,” said Collins about how he picked up the harmonica. He started when he was eight years old.

Though Collins learned the harmonica early he never played on a regular basic until he was older.

“I never played steady until about 20-30 years ago when I started playing all the time. Before that I’d play when I thought about it. I kept one in the glove compartment of my truck when I was working and I’d play it for a little bit.”

Collins made the decision to learn guitar so that he could sing along with his playing. Only knowing the harmonica hindered his ability to share his voice too.

“When I play the harmonica I have to take breaks on songs but I don’t have to on the guitar.”

Both instruments have their positives and negatives said Collins.

“I wish I could really play the guitar like I do on my harmonica but I didn’t learn the guitar early. To be a real picker you really need to learn it when you’re young. I don’t play lead (on guitar), I just play chords like strumming and that kind of thing.”

Collins claims he has a couple hundred songs up his sleeve but sometimes this can get confusing.

He said, “I’ve got probably a couple hundred songs that I know all of the words to. Sometimes I try to think of which ones I’m going to play and I get up and think that I’m going to play one then I can’t think of which one it is.”

Due to his inability to not read notes, Collins plays by ear only. This certainly does not hinder him as an artist. He has never taken lessons for the harmonica and only a few when he first started guitar.

“I don’t know any notes or anything, I just started playing it (harmonica) and it seemed like I’ve always been able to play it. I put it in my mouth and it played. The guitar was more difficult because of all the combinations of chords that you have to learn.”

When playing the guitar Collins has only one that he strums on. The harmonica doesn’t work that way. He as a variety of harps that play in different keys.

He has harps for the main keys such as C, G, D, E and A. When a song is played that isn’t in a key he has a harp for, Collins puts his talent to the test and plays cross harp.

“Every once in a while someone will do a song that I don’t have a harp for and sometimes I can cross harp. Cross harp is playing in a different way and using a different harp for another key.”

Cross harping can reap its benefits and allow the artist to play their own beat.

“If you’re playing the same key you pretty much have to stay with the melody but when you’re cross harping you can travel around in the song and just make sounds in it.”

As far as playing outside the Walnut Valley Festival, Collins doesn’t travel to many other festivals. He says he plays and sings at a senior citizen’s place in Chelsea, Okla. and he plays with people that he knows at the Veterans’ hospital.

Collins said he doesn’t have any special stories or memories from Winfield but that it is just always a wonderful time.

“It’s one place that I’ve been that I’m here only about 8 or 9 days and when I leave I start counting in my head, it’s going to be 350 so days until I’m going to come back. When I leave I’m already thinking about coming back. That’s the thing it’s just a wonderful experience.”

The passion Collins’ has for the Walnut Valley Festival and playing music in general runs deep within him.

“I’m just happy to be able to do what I do at my age, and still be able to enjoy it. It’s just priceless to me.”

Bailey VenJohn is a senior majoring in communication. You may email her at bailey.venjohn@sckans.edu.

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