Go play!

Miss Mary Mack: A hand-clapping history


Miss Mary Mack feat image

This is part 2 of a 3-part series telling brief histories of popular hand-clapping songs. 

So (just like in part one, on “Down, down, baby,”), why not start with hip-hop news? It seems Juicy J (feat. Lil Wayne and August Alsina) produced “Miss Mary Mack” just last year. (It took me a full minute to realize he’s singing about weed, and only weed. Must say, I prefer Nelly’s “Country Grammar” sample.)

Moving on… Here’s what I’m talking about. The first thing you need to know about “Miss Mary Mack” of schoolyard lore is that she gets around. Kyra Danielle Gaunt writes in The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-dutch to Hip-hop, that “‘Miss Mary Mack’ is the most common hand clapping game in the English- speaking world, and the most familiar in black repertoire.” It’s played in all parts of the U.S., as well as Australia, and New Zealand, and similar rhymes and references can be found in the U.K.

She’s old, too. Like Civil-War-or-older old. More on that in a minute.

But first, here are two girls in 2014 singing “Miss Mary Mack” almost exactly as it was sung in the 1950s, according to author of the Pancocojams blog Azizi Powell’s personal memories. (The main difference was that, back then, it apparently only cost 15 cents (not an outrageous 50) to watch elephants jump over fences.)

These girls do a version of the across-your-chest, your legs, your hands, partner’s-hands sequence commonly used with this song. They sing:

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back.

She asked her mother, mother, mother
For 15 cents, cents, cents
To see the elephant, elephant, elephant
Jump over the fence, fence, fence.

He jumped so high, high, high
He touched the sky, sky, sky
And he never came back, back, back
‘Til the 4th of July, lie, lie.

But never mind U.S. independence right now. Let’s fast-forward to the Civil War. One story goes that Miss Mary Mack is named after the Merrimack, one of the first ironclad frigates — black, with silver rivets — built in 1855. Five years later, following Virginia’s secession, the U.S. Navy set fire to and sank the Merrimack to avoid her capture by Confederate troops (who raised and rebuilt her as the CSS Virginia anyway).

According to (one of) Azizi Powell’s “Miss Mary Mack” post(s) (where she’s compiled nearly all the info. cited here, and more), around the time that the Merrimack sank then resurfaced in the Hampton Roads harbor, little girls in Shropshire, England, were already singing about how Betsy Blue came all in black/ Silver buttons down her back, suggesting that the rhyme for this song dates further back to in UK, and the possible Merrimack reference came later.

So maybe girls are really singing about a warship. Or just a girl.

…Or maybe a container for dead bodies. Folklorist Howard Washington Odum’s 1926 novel Rainbow Round My Shoulder: The Blue Trail of Black Ulysses (page 33) cites the opening lines of “Miss Mary Mack” as a (originally English) riddle told also among early 20th-century black laborers, whose answer is “a coffin.”

Meanwhile, the elephant stanza shows up in the early 20th century without Miss Mack, like in Thomas W. Talley’s 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes, Wise & Otherwise, in which the speaker’s mother provides 15 cents for the same fence-jumping elephant, who is also wont to “holler” for a dollar. (Now why it costs a whole dollar for a measly holler, but only 15 cents for a frankly miraculous extended elephantine levitation, the world may never know.)

By the way, the phrase “seeing the elephant” was a 19th century American phrase to describe grand, fanciful quests ending in disappointment. Ahem, GOP. (I love this Americanism, by the way. It is so American.) Evidently, there were a good many elephants to be seen along westward expansion routes and during the 1849 Gold Rush.

This concludes today’s lesson on playtime. But before we go, I must include this, from Henry Carrington Bolton’s The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children published in 1888, in which the Mary Mack, dressed in black/ Silver Buttons on her back opener is immediately followed with this refrain:

I love coffee, I love tea,
I love the boys, and the boys love me.
I’ll tell ma when she comes home,
The boys won’t leave the girls alone.

Sound familiar? Racier — and race-based — variants of this old rhyme snippet show up in some renditions of the newer song/game, “Down, down, baby.” Read more in part 1 of this series.

And if you’re ready for more, here’s part 3, on “Miss Susie (had a steamboat)”.


Is this how you sang it? Feel free to reminisce in the comment section below!


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