Casey Jarman

Out of the Woods

Buzz Martin, “the Singing Logger,” Was the Symbol of Logging Culture. then That Culture Died.

Discussed: The Canon of Modern Logging Music, A Hops Shack, The Eyes of the Dead, Whistle Punks, Letourneaus, A Bout with the Giggles, Johnny and June, Butterin’ Up Biscuit, Spaghetti Feeds, Polyester, The Arrival of the Spotted Owl

In photographs, everything about Buzz Martin looks unnaturally large: big nose, big forehead, big lamb-chop sideburns that draw attention away from the big ears behind them. “The Singing Logger” was seldom photographed without an ax or a guitar, probably because his lumpy hands hung awkwardly without something to hold. He wore his flannel shirtsleeves rolled up near his shoulders to reveal formidable white biceps offset by tan, leathery forearms that once measured seventeen inches around—the same size as Andre the Giant’s. His top three shirt buttons never seemed to find their loopholes. It’s hard to tell, from the old album covers and family photos, whether the deep lines on Martin’s face were wrinkles or scars. In the declining years of the timber industry, in the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest, Buzz Martin’s legend grew to Paul Bunyan proportions; he was a larger-than-life symbol of the logging world’s values, its resilience, and its screwball humor.

For about a decade, beginning in the late ’60s, the Singing Logger found enough success as a minor country-music star to hang up his lumberjack’s cork boots and tour bars, logging camps, and music festivals across the country. In his brief career, Martin wrote what would become nearly the entire canon of modern logging music. On his six albums—all released between the mid-’60s and early ’70s—he wrote forty-four original songs; nearly two-thirds are about logging.

Singing about blue-collar work has always been a rite of passage for country singers, but in the middle of the last century, a notable group of songwriters made their careers producing songs about a single occupation. Marty Robbins was a suburban kid turned racecar driver who made it big performing songs about gunslingers and cattle ranchers. Red Sovine, a former hosiery factory supervisor, found fame singing intensely melodramatic songs about the lives of long-haul truckers. But unlike many of his peers in the often-superficial and showy genre we’ll call “occupational country,” Buzz Martin was a direct product of the world he sang about. He approached his subject with a keen eye for detail. Martin preferred emotional realism to melodrama, and if his songs glorified the logger as a hero, just as often they painted a punishingly bleak portrait of the job. He wrote from the perspective of a keenly self-aware insider, resulting in a discography—most of which has been out of print since the ’70s—that provides a rare glimpse into a famously closed and protective segment of blue-collar America. Buzz Martin didn’t just document logging culture, he narrated the slow death of the Northwest’s biggest industry and the broken people it took down with it. Then, after a brief bout of fame, Martin returned to the wilderness and never came back.

Martin was born in 1928 in what has been described alternately as a tent and a “hops shack” in Coon Holler, Oregon, a hamlet so small it doesn’t show up on maps. Martin sings that as a dirt-poor kid he picked berries and scavenged for bottles with return deposits in order to buy candy and new clothes. In the late 1930s, he began to lose his sight, and at age thirteen he was sent to the Oregon School for the Blind, in Salem, where he first picked up a guitar. While at the school, he received a corneal transplant and regained his sight. Martin told friends and family that his new eyes had come from a dead prison inmate.

His father, Harry, died while Martin was away at school. His mother, Stella, died shortly after his release, when he was fifteen. Martin didn’t speak much about his parents, and never sang about them. As a teenager, he went to live with his sister and her considerably older husband, a musician and amateur instrument-maker named Bill Woosley. They lived in Five Rivers, a tiny community at the midway point between the Willamette Valley and the Oregon Coast. The closest town was Alsea, a now-dilapidated truck-stop town in the thick of the Siuslaw National Forest. The family cabin did not have electricity—though there was a battery-powered radio, which was used only for listening to the Grand Ole Opry—so they complemented logging work by playing music of their own. Martin, with encouragement from his sister, quickly became the singer of the house.

Martin was eighteen when he began working in the woods. World War II had just ended, and demand for timber had grown rapidly—first to support the war effort and then to keep up with the postwar economic boom. Martin, like many young loggers, first worked as a whistle punk, controlling a loud, steam-powered whistle that kept loggers in communication with one another. “The whistle punk is usually about sixteen to eighteen years old and the hardest boiled egg in the outfit,” Oregon logger D. D. Strite wrote in 1924. “He is usually deaf, dumb and blind.”

Martin didn’t stay a whistle punk for long. “He worked every job there is from cutting timber to high climbing,” Salem-based radio host Dick Bond explains in the liner notes for Martin’s first record. “Buzz has worked every kind of machine from a cat to a giant letourneau.”

In his twenties, Martin began singing for the workers in logging camps, a rich tradition in the industry. “Camp entertainment was of, by and for the woodsmen,” James Stevens wrote in “Shanty Boy,” a 1925 Paul Bunyan fable. “In Paul Bunyan’s camp there were hypnotic story-tellers, singers who could make you laugh and cry in the same moment.” The best singers were often the laziest workers, Stevens wrote, but they kept spirits high in the bunkhouses.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Casey Jarman is a former Believer intern from Portland, Oregon. For six years he was the music editor at Willamette Week, where he also covered the Portland Trail Blazers and the city’s pinball gangs. He now freelances, works for an internet start-up, and helps run Party Damage Records.

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