Katy, bar the door

Katy (or Katie) bar the door is an American catchphrase used to warn of impending danger. The bar the door part is self-explanatory, referring to locking a door against intruders. But who is Katy? There’s no satisfactory answer to that question, but the phrase is connected with traditional folk music on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Bar the door is an unremarkable phrase, doubtlessly independently coined many times over the centuries. But there is an old Scottish ballad, Get Up and Bar the Door, that seems to be the first musical use. The ballad is published in David Herd’s 1769 Ancient and Modern Scots Songs and is about a husband and wife arguing over who should get up and lock the door. They decide that the first one who speaks will do it. While they are sitting in silence, two men enter and plunder the house, but the couple remain silent until the intruders threaten to kiss the wife, at which point the husband stands up and speaks out, and the wife cackles that he has lost the bet. The ballad ends with these lines:

Then up and started our goodwife,
Gied three skips on the floor;
“Goodman, you’ve spoken the foremost word,
Get up and bar the door.”

Robert Burns also used bar the door in his bawdy Reels o’ Bogie, which was also set to music. (“Bogie” refers to the River Bogie in Aberdeenshire.) The poem is of uncertain date, but must predate his 1796 death. While the song has been played quite a bit over the centuries, its subject (and its inclusion of one particular word) prevented its publication until 1965 in the collection Merry Muses of Caledonia. The final stanza is:

When on my back I work like steel
An bar the door wi my left heel,
The mair you fuck the less I feel,
An that’s the reels o Bogie.

Bar the door’s use in American folk music dates to at least 1850, when it appears in A Song of a Pleasant Old Woodman, and his Wife Joan, at a Christmas Fire by an F. J. Palmer, published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle of New Lisbon, Ohio on 23 November. The song is about an older couple who lock the door so their grandchildren will not disturb their amorous activities. The song opens:

Come! Jock o’ the wood, my jolly old man!
get up and bar the door!
The feathery sleet with frosty foot, is dancing on
the moor.

But while we’ve seen bar the door in various folk songs on both sides of the Atlantic, so far there is no Katy. The first known association of a woman of that name barring the door in the phrase is from an 1841 poem The Old Smithy, published in a London collection of sketches and stories titled The Mirror. The story is about a blacksmith who kills a lone traveler for his money on dark, November night. Years later, a dog digs up the traveler’s bones, and the blacksmith hangs himself and his wife dies of grief. The poem opens:

“The snow is drifting on the ground,
And loud the east wind roars;
Come, men and maidens, hie you in;
Kate, bar those creaking doors.

“Call in the dogs, rouse up the fire;
And, mistress, do you hear?
Heat us a jug of elder wine,
For the night is chill and drear.”

The Kate here appears to be a mistress of the public house or home where the speaker is telling his grim tale and not a specific person. It’s worth noting that this is a British source, while the subsequent early sources are all American. How it might be connected to these later American uses is not known.

Katy makes her American appearance in a nineteenth-century American fiddle tune entitled, appropriately enough, Katie, Bar the Door. We don’t know who wrote the song or when it was written, but the earliest known reference to it is from the 2 October 1872 Louisiana Democrat of Alexandra, LA:

The Custom House Packet, with the Custom House colored band, U.S. Marshal Packard, in command, with the old flag triumphantly kissing the breeze of old Red, the band playing “Katie, Bar The Door,” and with waving rags touched the wharf and proceeded to land her precious cargo.

So a song of that title existed in 1872, but efforts to track down its music or lyrics have been unsuccessful. The following lyrics are associated with a tune called Katy Bar the Door as played by twentieth-century banjo man Roscoe Parrish. But we don’t know if this particular tune, much less its lyrics, is the one from the 1870s:

Katy bar your door,
Katy bar your door;
The Indians jumping all around your house,
Katy bar your door.

Katie bar the door appears in 1878 in yet another song. This one was composed especially for a wedding of a soldier named Murphy, stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and a Miss Cooper. It was published in the Sedalia (Missouri) Weekly Bazoo on 26 March 1878, and includes the lines:

This winsome maid had lovers many,
Whose love she did implore,
There was George and Fred and Harry,
And Ed who numbered with the score,
But when the soldier he came in,
It was “Katie bar the door.”

We don’t know the first name of Miss Cooper, but it probably wasn’t Katie. The quotation marks indicate that the catchphrase was in use at the time and being used here to indicate that Cooper is metaphorically locking the door against new suitors now that she has met Murphy.

The next year we see the following in the Lima, Ohio Times Democrat of 30 October 1879:

To sum it all up, my advice to anyone thinking of going there would be “don’t,” unless they have a pocketfull of the “rhino” which they can afford to lose. I saw it was “Katy bar the door” with me unless I skipped, and I lost no time in skipping.

So in short, we have no idea who Katy or Katie is or why she should be barring the door. All we know is that the phrase appears in the mid nineteenth-century and that it has a connection to folk music.

There is one historical incident that is often cited as the origin of the phrase, although its actual connection to the phrase is unlikely. On 20 February 1437, King James I of Scotland was assassinated while staying at the Dominican chapterhouse in Perth, and one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Catherine Douglas, tried to save him by using her arm as a bolt to secure the door against the assassins. She was unsuccessful and her arm was broken, but her bravery was celebrated and she became popularly known as Kate Barlass. Her descendants to this day bear a broken arm on their family crest and keep the name Barlass. But there is a four-hundred-year gap between this historical incident and the appearance of the phrase, so while it is not beyond the realm of possibility that memory of the event gave rise to Kate’s connection with the barring the door, that’s a very tenuous conclusion.

The 1437 incident was made famous again in 1881 with the publication of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, The King’s Tragedy. But this poem, which does not use the phrase Katy bar the door or any variation of it, appears after the phrase was established in the American idiom, so it is clearly unconnected to the phrase’s origin. 

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2018, s. v. Katy bar the door, phr.; work, v.

Katie Bar the Door.” Traditional Tune Archive, 23 May 2017.

O’Toole, Garson. “Re: ‘Katy, bar the door’ (1872–1887).” ADS-L, 6 February 2016.

Morris, Peter. “‘Katy, bar the door’ (1872–1887).” ADS-L, 7 February 2016.

Reinhelm. “The Old Smithy.” The Mirror, vol. 37, London: Hugh Cunningham, 1841, 91.

Taylor-Blake, Bonnie. “‘Katy, bar the door’ (1872–1887).” ADS-L, 6 February 2016.

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