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Barnacle Bill on Mars

mars rock

Why did NASA name a Martian rock after a dirty ditty from the early days of jazz?

By Richard von Busack
(Dedicated to the memory of my grandfather,
Vilas Murphy Jr., USN)

Yes, Yogi. Yes, also Casper. But, but ... Martian rocks have to have some kind of nomenclature in the interests of aresology (the Martian version of geology), still, couldn't the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have found a more appropriate nickname for that rock than "Barnacle Bill"? Did government funds pay for this smut? Where is Ralph Reed when we need him?

In 1929, Tin Pan Alley vets Carson Robinson and Frank Luther composed a cleaned-up version of a certain notorious song, which was later recorded by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Watering down folk art is how Whiteman made his fortune. The erstwhile "King of Jazz" was not only the first to earn real money playing pop ($25 grand for six-day stand, in 1922 dollars), he was also the first to succeed at what many musicians would do throughout the century. Jazz buffs still shake their heads over how the aptly named Whiteman took jazz and lightened its complexion for domestic consumption.

Certainly one of the tastiest numbers Whiteman ever laid down, "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" includes a cornet solo by the then-declining Bix Beiderbecke, a solo described by historians Frederick Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith as "32 bars of music stemming back to his greatest days."

The lyrics of the all-ages version, which are bad enough, follow:

    Who's that knocking on my door?
    Who's that knocking on my door?
    Who's that knocking on my door?
    Cried the fair young maiden.

    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
    'Cause I can't swim a bloody stroke
    Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.

    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.

    Well, hurry, before I bust in the door
    I'll rear [like a stallion?] and tear and rant and roar
    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.

Even censored, it's not exactly a tale of young love in bloom. One clue to the secret history of the song can be heard in the chorus. Joe Venuti, ace violinist for Whiteman and a irrepressible joker, is clearly audible.

Many stories persist of Venuti's misdeeds. He's said, for example, to have once shoved a piano out a window to find out what chord it would make when it landed on the pavement. Venuti can be plainly heard on the recording, bellowing out the chorus as "Barnacle Bill the Shithead." Obviously, Venuti was protesting the emasculation of this familiar song.

[line]

Rover holds hands with Barnacle Bill on Mars.

A different version of the uncensored lyrics
to Barnacle Bill the Sailor.

[line]

The Missing Couplets

Cut to 1969. One Ed Cray, a highly placed official for the Los Angeles ACLU by profession and a folk music fan by vocation, decides to collect the familiar but previously unprintable version of "Barnacle Bill." In a book with the amusingly high-flown title The Erotic Muse (Oak Publishing, 1969), Cray compiles verses for songs such as "Roll Me Over in the Clover," "The Harlot of Jerusalem" and "Funiculi, Funicula" (performed in school yards everywhere as "Last Night, I Stayed at Home and Masturbated").

Even after transcribing all of this smut, Cray writes apologetically of "Barnacle Bill," a.k.a. "Bollochy Bill":

"This song, unlike so many folk songs, has little to recommend it. It's melody is monotonous, its lyrics are repetitious to the point of idiocy." (Robinson and Luther added a b-section that adds greatly to the pep of the song.)

Cray continues: "But weak tune and foolish lyrics notwithstanding, the song has a special appeal ... singers can add new lyrics as they go, unburdened by the necessity of observing rhyme schemes. The repetitive tune is easily learned and seems to gather momentum as the song goes along."

And now for the missing, uncensored couplets--children, do not read this:

    Just open the door and lay on the floor
    Said Barnacle Bill, the Sailor.
    Just open the door and lay on the floor
    Said Barnacle Bill, the Sailor.

    What if Ma and Pa should see?
    What if Ma and Pa should see?
    What if Ma and Pa should see?
    Cried the fair young maiden.

    We'll fuck your ma and shoot your pa
    Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.
    We'll fuck your ma and shoot your pa
    Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.

    What if we should have a child?
    Cried the fair young maiden.

    We'll dig a ditch and bury the bitch
    Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.

    Stop shoving at the door
    Cried the fair young maiden.

    So he picked the lock with his big hairy cock
    Did Barnacle Bill, the Sailor.

Enough. Only longevity could add to the distastefulness of "Barnacle Bill, The Sailor." It was apparently descended from a now extinct (but just as coarse) sea chanty called "Abel (or Abram) Brown the Sailor." This evidence adds weight to Cray's claim: "So for a hundred or more years, Bollochy Bill has been paying a visit to the fair young maiden."

What's the moral of all of this? The old one: Earthlings are formed in iniquity and conceived in sin and are now spreading it to the rest of a solar system.

Also: It's a good thing we're exploring Mars, because there's nothing new on our planet. The 30-year distance between a ribald folksinger like Oscar Brand and 2 Live Crew is furthered by public amnesia. Every one of those senators that squawked when they heard those gangsta rap songs about players with 5-foot-long courting tackle--every one of those old men sang "Barnacle Bill" in his frat house.

Lastly, tracking all of this down made me nostalgic. In an increasingly frank world, there's no room for the double-entendre song, the songs about ding-a-lings and squeeze boxes that made me feel like one very cosmopolitan 13-year-old. Still, in their understandable euphoria over this Martian landing, the flacks at Jet Propulsion Laboratory sort of let out a collective public belch, didn't they?

"Barnacle Bill" indeed--that if they'd really been searching for an innocent image of a crusty old rock, why didn't they name the boulder "Popeye"?

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