My Dad & Barnacle Bill


My dad repairing a vehicle in our driveway, 1951.

One of my fondest memories of my father — who is ninety-seven and has been having a rough go of it lately — involves the ballad of Barnacle Bill, a song popular in the 1930s.

Picture me as a child of five, knocking on the bathroom door. My father is inside, shaving or whatever. He answers my knock, singing in falsetto:

“Who’s that knocking at my door? Who’s that knocking at my door? Who’s that knocking at my door? (Cried the fair young maiden).”

Of course, I’d tell him it was me and that I had to go to the bathroom . . . BAD. Like all children who would rather play than go pee, I’d leave it until the last moment.

He’d answer by continuing to sing, this time in a gravelly male voice:

“It’s only me from over the sea
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll sail the seas until I croak.
I’ll fight and swear and drink and smoke,
But I can’t swim a bloody stroke
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).”

By this time, I’d plead again for him to let me in, and he’d reply in falsetto:

“I’ll come down and let you in,
I’ll come down and let you in,
I’ll come down and let you in,
(Cried the fair young maiden).”

Sometimes he’d let me in. But if he needed more time to finish, he’d draw out the torture by singing the last verse:

Fancy Pants

My dad in his knickers (right) with his father outside their home in central Minnesota. I call this photo “fancy pants.” It must have been taken in the 1930s, during the time the Barnacle Bill song was on the radio.

“Well hurry before I bust in the door
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll rare and tear and rant and roar
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll spin you yarns and tell you lies
I’ll drink your wine and eat your pies
I’ll kiss your cheeks and black your eyes
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).”

Finally, he’d open the door to find me doing the ‘I have to go pee’ dance in the hallway.

Even though this ritual was rather cruel, hearing my father imitate the male and female voices was fascinating. It was sort of scary, too, like there was a stranger (or two) in the bathroom. And some of the words were rather violent. But I was the youngest of four, so no doubt, my father needed some type of delay or coping mechanism for these interruptions from his children.

In looking up the lyrics for this song on the Internet, I learned my father was singing the tame version. His rendition was made popular by Hoagy Carmichael and his orchestra on the radio (including Benny Goodman on clarinet and Tommy Dorsey on trombone). Other adaptations are much “saucier,” and longer.

All I can say is thank goodness my dad sang the short and sweet version to me or there would have been a puddle in the hallway.

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