In 2002 I picked up the banjo for the first time and started to get interested in old-time stringband music. There was a resurgence of interest in old-time music then, and I got swept up in it. Bill Martin (AKA King Bubba) was, and is, the overall clad father figure of the old-time community here in Portland.
Bill taught me and a few others to call square dances during the summer of 2002. He saw that interest in traditional stringband music was growing and he wanted to be sure that square dancing would be part of the wave. He took it upon himself to teach us the calls, and along the way he also imparted a strong philosophy – square dancing is not a recreated moment in history, it is a living tradition that is best served by having a warm and welcoming attitude.
Bill’s dances, and as a result, the dances of those who learned from him, have always been beginner-friendly affairs with lots of energy. They are famously inter-generational. Bill never wanted an elitist crowd to develop, and never wanted new dancers to feel excluded. The amazing thing is that he achieved this goal while still introducing a high level of dancing. His focus on teaching clearly and his constant assertion that our events were “parties first, and dances second” made everyone feel welcome and sent everyone home happy. The ripple effect of these dances was amazing. People from all over the country began to hear about the great old-time scene in Portland. As people visited and brought reports back home to their friends they got up the gumption to revive square dances in their own towns. I don’t think it’s too much to say that Bill had a direct impact on the growth of square dancing across the country.
But Bill wasn’t just a dance caller and teacher. He was also a community ring leader. His website and weekly e-mails kept everyone up to date on shows, dances, workshops, festivals, new recordings, and documentaries. He wasn’t afraid to use his forum as a bully pulpit either – urging the community to learn to play Schottisches, embrace early bluegrass and jug band music as part of the old-time repertoire, and even chastise folks for missing a good show now and then. He was active on internet groups on traditional dancing, wrote articles for the Old Time Herald, and was featured on OPB’s Art Beat.
Everything that Bill did, he did with delight, a sense of humor, and genuine enjoyment. As I write this Bill is in hospice, valiantly greeting friends, playing music, and organizing his affairs while trying to mitigate the growing pain from cancer. I’ve been very fortunate to know Bill, and to learn about square dances, music, and community from him. My life, and the lives of many others, wouldn’t have been the same without him.