Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Miss Mary Mack" - Sources, Theories, Early Versions, & Other Comments

Edited by Azizi Powell

Update: January 21, 2019

This post provides theories about the meaning of the "Mary Mack" ("Miss Mary Mack") rhyme/song as well as early examples of that rhyme or similar rhymes and my comments about "Miss Mary Mack" rhymes/songs. This post also includes a commonly found example of "Miss Mary Mack" and a delightful video of young children singing that song.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All content remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the children featured in the video and thanks to the publisher of that video that is included in this post.

Click this link for a companion pancocojams post
"Various Handclap Routines For "Miss Mary Mack".

A COMMONLY FOUND VERSION OF "MISS MARY MACK" [1950s Southern New Jersey and to date in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and elsewhere]

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 fifty* 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
Till the fourth of July ly ly
-multiple sources, including my childhood memories of Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1950s

*I remember saying "fifteen cents" when I was a child, but most children now say "fifty cents". This is probably because the word "fifty" fits the rhyming pattern better than "fifteen".

Miss. Mary Mack all dressed in black....

evealikenimel·Uploaded on Jun 16, 2011

Apresentacao no Nic na escola....2010-2011

These theories are presented in no particular order.
1. The name of a Civil War ship
Mention of this theory includes:
"The name "Mary Mack" originally was Merrimac (an early ironclad that would have been black, with silver rivets) suggesting that the first verse refers to the Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War."

2. A riddle whose answer is a coffin
Citations for this theory include:
"A coffin was:
Mary Mack all dressed in black
Silver buttons all down her back"
From the 1926 novel Rainbow Round My Shoulder: The Blue Trail of Black Ulysses. page 33 [That novel is part of a trilogy about a Black laborer, was written by Howard Washington Odum. Odum was a very prestigious Anglo-American sociologist, scholar, and folklorist who also edited the highly regarded 1925 book The Negro And His Songs].

b)Source: Robert A Georges and Alan Dundes, "Toward a Structural Definition of the Riddle" in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. LXXVI, No. 300 (Apr 1963 (available online by JSTOR)), p. 114) as noted in ; The Ballad Index Copyright 2014 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle [hereafter given as "The Ballad Index: Mary Mack"]
"Mary Mack all dressed in black/Silver buttons all down her back” -"Archer Taylor in English Riddles from Oral Tradition (Berkley, 1951); riddle #656 with the solution "coffin"

3. The "Mary Mack" rhyme is a rhyming exercise and doesn't really mean anything.

4. Similar to #3, "Miss Mary Mack" is composed of lines from various sources (such as a riddle and lines from other stand alone rhymes and/or songs.)
Many playground rhymes are composed by stringing together sometimes unrelated stand alone rhymes or songs, or lines from those compositions. "Miss Mary Mack" isn't unique in that regard.

Read the 1888 example of "Miss Mary Mack" given below for one example of how this rhyme is obviously composed by combining lines from different sources.

Also, "Going To see the elephant jump the fence" may mean going to the circus to see the trained elephants do tricks, although elephants don't jump fences in the circus, and jump so high that they don't return down to the ground until the 4th of July. So there's that...

However, indicates that "The phrase "seeing the elephant" is an Americanism (or American phrase) of the mid to late 19th century. Seen throughout the United States in the Mexican-American War, the Texas Santa Fe Expedition, the American Civil War, the 1849 Gold Rush, and the Westward Expansion Trails (Oregon Trail, California Trail, Mormon Trail), the mythical elephant was an extremely popular way of expressing an overwhelming emotion."

Furthermore, lines from "Mary Mack" are found in an African American Spiritual:
Source: "The Ballad Index: Mary Mack"
"One spiritual includes the verse "Look over there what I see, Mary and Mac, Dressed in black. Where shall I be when the first trumpet sound? Where shall it be when it sound so loud? Goin' ter wake up de dead" (source: Anna Kranz Odum, "Some Negro Folk-Songs from Tennessee" in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. XXVII, No. 105 (Jul 1914 (available online by JSTOR)), #3 p. 257 "Goin' ter Wake Up de Dead" (1 text)). Apparently not knowing about the rhyme, Odum reasonably takes Mac to be a corruption of Martha, Mary of Bethany's sister (John 11:1-12:11); or perhaps he has it right and the rhyme is corrupted."
In my opinion, those lyrics quoted by The Ballad Index serve as an common example of a singer of religious songs including lines from a secular source, probably to extemporaneously "keep the song going". While the borrowing is usually from the religious to the secular, I'm sure that there are examples of the use of lyrics in the other direction (although I can't think of any off the top of my head). Anyone care to offer some examples?

"The Ballad Index: Mary Mack" also indicates that the "Mary Mack" rhyme should "Not to be confused with the music hall song of the same title, which involves what sounds to be a shotgun wedding".
That music hall song is the Scottish folk song "Mari Mac". Click "Lyric request: Mary Mack or Mari-Mac" for information about & lyric examples of that song.

EXAMPLES OF "MARY MACK" FROM THE SINGING GAME (edited by Iona and Peter Opie, (1985)
quoted by Donna Richoux,!msg/alt.usage.english/u483flGZvk8/aS6QBNxm2w8J April 7, 2011

..."Miss Mary Mack" is entry number 145 [in the Opies' book].

They say that this song "is clapped today by girls all over the country", meaning
Britain. So that addresses the first question.

They say it is "a combination of an old English rhyme and an oldish
American one."

This one was documented in Boston in 1865:

Mary Mack, dressed in black,
Silver buttons all down her back,
Walking on the railroad track.

In the 1870s, Shropshire children were observed dancing to:

Betsy Blue came all in black,
Silver buttons down her back,
Every button cost a crown,
Every lady turn around,
Alligoshi, alligoshee,
Turn the bridle over my knee.

The rhyme about the elephant who jumps the fence turns up independently
in the US, starting around 1915."

From: The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children
By Henry Carrington Bolton
New York, NY: D. Appleton & Co. 1888
Pg. 117:
Miss Mary Mack, dressed in black,
Silver buttons on her back.
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.
N. S. B., West Chester, Pa. 1888
-quoted by Donna Richoux,!msg/alt.usage.english/u483flGZvk8/aS6QBNxm2w8J April 7, 2011
Note: Commenter Cheryl wrote on April 8, 2011 that part of that version of "Miss Mary Mack" includes lines from the folk song "Mari-Mac".
Revised: January 21, 2019:
Since "I Love Coffee, I Love Tea" is an independent rhyme, that 1888 example of "Miss Mary Mack" can be said to be made up by combining a riddle (if you believe that theory as I do) : "Miss Mary Mack, dressed in black/ Silver buttons on her back" with lines from a (then) jump rope rhyme [now usually performed as a partner hand clap rhyme: "I love coffee, I love tea/ I love the boys, and the boys love me" and combined with lines from a Scottish folk song: "I'll tell ma when she comes home,
The boys won't leave the girls alone."

An early example of "Mary Mack" is the song/rhyme entitled "The Elephant" that is included in African American professor Thomas W. Talley's now classic 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes, Wise & Otherwise, even though that example doesn't include the name "Mark Mack", or whether its a girl or boy speaking the lines, or whether the person speaking wore black with or without silver buttons down her or his back:

My mammy gimme fifteen cents
Fer to see the elephan' jump de fence.
He jump so high, I didn't see why,
If she gimme a dollar he mought not cry.

So I axed my mammay to gimme a dollar,
Fer to sgo an' hear de elephan' holler,
He holler so loud, he skerred de crowd.

Nex' he jump so high, he reech de sky;
An' he won't git back 'fore de fo'th o' July.
[Kennikat Press edition, 1969, p 116; originally published 1922 Macmillan Press] {Warning: That book includes the includes what is now known as "the n word" fully spelled out.]

The British & Australian rhymes or songs that include the "ask my mother for sixpence to see the giraffe" lines are similar to those lines in "Mary Mack" rhymes. However, I'm not sure when those rhymes were first documented. Did they come before or after the American "Mary Mack" rhymes? (assuming that the "Mary Mack" rhymes originated in the United States).

I refer to those "ask my mother for sixpence to see the giraffe" rhymes as "profanity avoidance" rhymes because those compositions act like they are avoiding the use of profanity or taboo words when they actually using or implying those words. In those compositions the last word of each line could be considered risqué or taboo, but the first word of the next line provides plausible deniability about what the chanter or singer meant to say. Instead of that pattern, in some profanity avoidance rhymes or songs the last word in each line of a profanity avoidance rhyme or song might be omitted (i.e. not said or sung) because it is risqué or taboo. For instance, the word "hell" was omitted in some late 19th century or early 20th century songs/rhymes. Also, consider the examples of "Miss Susie Had A Steamboat", a very widely known profanity avoidance playground rhyme.

WARNING: The rhymes that include the "ask my mother for sixpence" lines can be considered to be bawdy (what British people call "rude" and what children I know refer to as "nasty"). Here's an excerpt of a profanity avoidance rhyme that shares some similarities with the subject matter found in "Mary Mack":

Ask your mum for sixpence to see the big giraffe
Pimples on his whiskers and pimples on his aarr....
....auntie Mary had a canary thought it was a duck
took it behind the kitchen door and taught it how to f-f-f.....
....fried eggs for dinner, fried eggs for tea
the more you eat, the more you drink, the more you want to ppee...
....peter had a boat, the boat begaan to rock
along came a shark and bit off his c-c-c...
cock - a - doodle do that's all i have for you
- GUEST,Geoff Aunty Mary Had a Canary - where?
Another example of that same "ask your mother for sixpence to see the giraffe" rhyme/song is:

Well I ask my mother for a sixpence to see the new giraffe
With wrinkles in he body and dimples in he…
Ask my mother for a sixpence to see the new giraffe
With wrinkles in he body and dimples in he…
Ask me no questions, you will hear no lies,
Put down molasses and it will catch no flies...
A long example of this rhyme can be found on as posted by Jamie Renton » Fri Feb 03, 2012 9:07 pm who quoted a Bajan (Barbados) song entitled "Sixpence" that is found on YouTube.
I'm not sure when the first documented example of "ask my mother for sixpence to see an animal" was first documented in the United Kingdom. Could "Mary Mack" rhymes in the United States be cleaned up versions of bawdy British originated rhymes with the name "Mary Mack (perhaps from the Scottish folk rhyme "Mari Mac" or the Civil war ship "Merrimac")?

In her book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-dutch to Hip-hop, African American author Kyra Danielle Gaunt wrote “The game song “Miss Mary Mack” is the most common hand clapping game in the English- speaking world, and the most familiar in black repertoire.”[Google Book, page 63]
Kyra Gaunt gave no citations for those statements, but she did list these collection dates for this rhyme in the United States & in New Zealand:
"Roger Abrahams (1969) found variations of this game song in Kansas (1940), Missouri (1947), North Carolina (1948), Arkansas (1949), Pennsylvania (1959), Texas (1963), Indiana (1966), and New Zealand (1959). He linked the performance to region, but did not include any information about the ethnicity of the performers. According to Abrahams, the first lines of “Mary Mack” are based on a riddle for “coffin” that has origins in English oral practices (Taylor 1951, quoted 234, quoted in Abrahams 1969, 120.)”Source: The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-dutch to Hip-hop [Google Book, p. 63]

My personal experiences facilitating game song groups and special game song performances in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area from 1997-2005 (mostly with Black children) support the view that "Miss Mary Mack" was a widely known rhyme. That said, it seemed to me that "Miss Mary Mack" was much more widely known among African American children (5-12 years) than among non-African American children of those same ages. Indeed, it seemed to me that "Miss Mary Mack" was the most widely known (but not the most popular) playground rhyme among African American children. (I think the most popular rhyme among that popular in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area during those years may have been "Mama Mamma Can't You See" or "Twee lee lee", also known as "Rockin Robin"). However, by at least 2003, it appeared that fewer African American children knew the words to "Miss Mary Mack" than had previously known that rhyme.

It's likely the title "Miss Mary Mack" is more commonly found among African Americans than non-African Americans. One reason for this may be that many African American children (particularly those children in the South or raised by adults with recent Southern roots) were (are) taught to always address women using the title "Miss" before their last name or their first name, if you were given permission to use that first name. Hence, that rhyme is usually known as "Miss Mary Mack" and not "Mary Mack". It seems to me that that rule might also be operative in the rhymes "Miss Sue From Alabama" and "Miss Lucy Had A Steamboat". However, it should be noted that it seems to me that the voice that is speaking the lines in "Miss Mary Mack" is a girl and not a woman. (After all, she asks her mother for money to see the elephants jump the fence.) That said, White girls were also referred to by the prefix "little Miss" or "Missy".
[added January 21, 2019]
Here's an excerpt that expands on my earlier statements about the use of "Miss" in "Miss Mary Mack" and the other rhymes noted above:
..."Until the 19th century, most women did not have any prefix before their name. Mrs and, later, Miss were both restricted to those of higher social standing. Women on the bottom rungs of the social scale were addressed simply by their names. Thus, in a large household the housekeeper might be Mrs Green, while the scullery maid was simply Molly, and the woman who came in to do the laundry was Tom Black’s wife or Betty Black."...
Pancocojams Editor's comment: "Aunt" and "Uncle" were also sometimes used as prefixes for older Black women- i.e Aunt Jemima and "Uncle Remus".
Note the "Mary Mack" verses in Rufus Thomas's 1963 hit R&B song "Walking The Dog":
Mary Mack, dressed in black
Silver buttons all down her back
High hose, tipsy toes
She broke the needle and she can't sew


I asked my mama for 15 cents
See an elephant jump the fence
He jumped so high, he touched the skies
Didn't come back 'til the 4th of July"
These are the "Mary Mack" verses from that song, and not that song's complete lyrics.

Online transcriptions for Rufus Thomas' version of "Walking The Dog" which is the original version of that song have incorrect lyrics for these two verses, i.e. "Baby back" instead of "Mary Mack" and "asked a fellow..." instead of "I asked my mama".

Listening to this rendition of Rufus Thomas singing "Walking The Dog" you can clearing hear the words as I've given them above-which come from the "Mary Mack" children's rhyme and not the incorrect words that are given in online lyric pages.

Click for examples of & comments about "Mary Mack", including examples that end with this old floating verse that is found in a number of 19th century American and Caribbean folk rhymes/songs:
"July can't walk, walk, walk
July can't talk, talk, talk
July can't eat, eat, eat
With a knife and fork, fork, fork"

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. includes the following two comments describing what I call "profanity avoidance rhymes/songs". [Warning: That discussion thread includes profanity or implied profanity or taboo words because that's the nature of those examples that are given.]

    Subject: 'Teasing' songs
    From: Peter K (Fionn)
    Date: 30 May 00 - 08:37 AM

    ..."There are many songs in which rhymning patterns etc are used to create anticipation of vulgarities, which are either averted at the last moment or at least resolve innocently."...


    Subject: RE: 'Teasing' songs
    From: DADGBE
    Date: 30 May 00 - 11:42 AM

    ... Thare's a whole group of songs, usually in round form which appear innocuous when read but become ribald when sung in just the way you describe. They're called "catches" and were very popular with English singing clubs during eras of increased sexual repression (like the last 200 years!). Henry Purcel wrote many catches which are still widely sung."

  2. About thirty five years ago a friend who was doing an essay on girls' playground songs was hunting for examples, so I asked my young nieces. One of the songs they immediately sang was ' Mary Mack'. The words were exactly as you give them, except the last line I think was different (as far as I remember it was 'And never came back, back, back/ To Mary Mack.' ) I had never heard the song myself, though I grew up close to where my nieces did, and so although there was no reference to the 4th of July I assumed it was of US origin - maybe learned from a TV programme.

    1. Hello, slam2011.

      Thanks for your comment.

      I believe that the "Mary Mack" children's rhyme originated in the United States, although the source of the usual first four lines of that rhyme is from the United Kingdom".

      There was a time when television, movies, and records were the main mass media ways that children's rhymes were disseminated throughout the world. I think that television programs and movies still help spread rhyme examples. But, it seems to me that the internet has replaced records (and books) as a way that children (and adults) learn children's rhymes (including singing games, taunting chants, and cheers).

      With regard to the internet and children's rhymes- not only can people learn rhymes from other cities and nations that are currently being played, but they can also learn rhymes from the past which may have been largely forgotten. Another benefit of the internet is that people can realize that there are usually multiple versions of the same rhyme, and people who say (or have said) a version of that rhyme other than the one that you learned, aren't necessarily saying that rhyme "the wrong way".

      And it seems to me that recognizing that there is more than one way of doing something can have positive ramifications in a number of areas of life, far apart from children's rhymes.