Final Notes, Bill Martin

Bill Martin, mainstay of the Northwest’s old-time music and dance community, died on September 7. Thanks to December Carson for allowing the OTH to reprint the following article, which first appeared in the Oregon Music News.

Old-time square dance caller, mentor, and beloved musician Bill Martin died Friday after his long battle with multiple myeloma.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was an old-time music revival taking place across the country. In Portland, Oregon, bands like the Dickel Brothers, Pig Iron, the Flat Mountain Girls, the Government Issue Orchestra, and the Foghorn Stringband were gathering fans, drawing crowds, and inspiring musicians to take up instruments like the banjo, fiddle, and upright bass.

In these young musicians Martin, a veteran square dance caller and a bluegrass player, saw an opportunity. He was busy calling traditional old-time square dances up and down the I-5 corridor and he needed musicians – and for these young scrappy musicians Martin was offering something that young musicians were lacking – paying gigs.

It was a match made in heaven. Out of that marriage of young scrappy punk kids playing traditional American music and a Santa-like veteran square dance caller grew one of the most popular old-time music and vibrant square dance scenes in the nation. For 10 years the McMenamins Kennedy School hosted a monthly square dance that drew hundreds of people – of all ages and all abilities – to learn to square dance.

“I never would have started playing music and met my entire community of friends if it hadn’t been for Bill Martin giving me a hundred-year-old banjo that he just happened to have in the trunk of his car,” Samy Alloy posted on Bill Martin’s Facebook page.

In 1999, Martin, lovingly known as King Bubba, joined forces with some of those young musicians to start the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering. Now approaching its fourteenth year the Gathering draws together old-time musicians from all over the country every January to spend a week playing music and dancing at the Scottish Rite Center.

Bill Martin performed bluegrass and old-time music in the bands Spud Mountain, Uncle-Wiggly, and with his brothers as the Martin Brothers.

In 2003 Oregon Public Broadcasting featured Bill Martin and Portland’s old-time music and square dance scene in an episode of Oregon Art Beat (Mike Midlo, Producer). It is one of their most-watched episodes to date.

King Bubba’s legacy lives on in Northwestern bands and musicians such as the Tall Boys, Watertower, the Foghorn Stringband, the Gallus Brothers, the New Five Cents, Caleb Klauder and Annalisa Tornfelt, and in his square dance calling students Caroline Oakley, Maggie Lind, Michael Ismerio, and Paul Silveria.

“Bill Martin laid the foundation for Portland, Oregon, to become a haven for the last significant old-time music and dance revival in this country. King Bubba, as we call him, was a kingpin of the Northwest social music network. And I don’t mean Facebook. Bill was Bubbaville,” Caleb Klauder said.

Portlanders can enjoy the fruits of Martin’s square dance legacy at the Every Sunday Square Dance. This old-time square dance is every Sunday (September-June) at the Village Ballroom (700 NE Dekum, just east of MLK Boulevard in Portland). This dance is for all ages and dancers of all abilities.

Fans of old-time music and of square events on the website Bill started and edited,

-December Carson


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