Mary Mack

This is usually a hand-clap or jump rope rhyme, though I heard it sung as a kid, too. I want to say the version I heard was on a “Wee Sing” tape. It left out the repetition and was sung to a tune not unlike the theme from Jaws. It scared the heck out of me – and I didn’t even realize that it may have been based on a riddle about a coffin!

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 50 cents, cents, cents
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump over the fence, fence, fence.
They jumped so high, high, high
They reached the sky, sky, sky
They never came back, back back
Till the 4th of July, ly, ly!
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

I’ve seen this come up on a list of signs you’re a “Child of the 90s,” implying that this was a “90s thing.” It’s WAY older than that – possibly well over a century. It even has a wikipedia entry which includes an explanation of the rather far-fetched (though sort of charming) theory that it secretly refers to the Merrimac, the confederate battle ship. In One Potato Two Potato by Mary and Herbert Knapp, they say that “Mary Mack” wasn’t always a clapping rhyme, but was originally a riddle, the answer to which was “coffin,” which several other sources have noted, as well.* The elephant part was listed, as of 1922, as an old “negro folk rhyme.” In any case, it’s safe to say that it pre-dates the 20th century.

Other versions go around, as well. Per Knapp’s book (early-mid 1970s), the following was current in New York (starting after the “buttons down her back” line):

She went upstairs to make her bed
made a mistake and bumped her head
She went downstairs to wash the dishes
She made a mistake and washed her wishes
She went outside to hang her clothes
she made a mistake and hung her nose

Another version they mention is similar to what Merav (in the comments) heard in London, Ontario a few years after the Knapps time.

She could not read, read, read
she could not write, write, write
but she could smoke, smoke smoke
her father’s pipe, pipe, pipe
She asked her mommy, mommy, mommy
for fifteen cents, cents, cents
to see the boys, boys, boys,
pull down their pants, pants pants
.

The elephant was certainly getting a better deal than the boys. I suppose one could argue that this version actually predates the “elephant” one, simply based on the lower price, but the elephant version also went around as “fifteen cents” at various times.

* – you know, I found several sources SAYING this was a riddle, but none that really seemed to back that claim up. I can imagine that it was PART of a riddle, but I don’t see how “may mack, dressed in black, silver buttons down her back” could possibly mean “coffin,” at least without coming up with some farfetched explanations. If you can explain it, please do!

(Visited 20,193 times, 1 visits today)

17 Comments

  1. Merav Hoffman

    The line I remember that I haven't seen in the common versions was:

    Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
    All dressed in black, black, black
    With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
    All down her back, back, back.
    She cannot read, read, read,
    She cannot write, write, write,
    But she can smoke, smoke, smoke,
    Her father's pipe, pipe, pipe.

    It would then resume as above. London, ON, Circa 1980-1983

    Reply
  2. Merav Hoffman

    Oh, also, we didn't have the last bit, about July, so I'm thinking the lines above about reading, writing and smoking were some kind of substitution for them.

    Reply
  3. Adam Selzer

    Merav – maybe a Canadian substitution for the line about a U.S. holiday? But I think I've heard that other part before – maybe in a Shirley Temple rhyme….off to the books!

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    My nieces used to sing this in Manchester, England, in the late 1970s.

    "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 50 pence, pence, pence
    To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
    Jump over the fence, fence, fence.
    They jumped so high, high, high
    They reached the sky, sky, sky
    They never came back, back back
    To Mary Mack."

    Although it was anglicized by changing the currency from 'cents' to 'pence' and the reference to July 4th was deleted, I remember thinking at the time they'd probably taken it from Sesame Street, because it sounded so American. Incidentally the NYT doesn't have an earlier reference to 'Mary Mack' as a children's game than 1977. I don't believe it's much older.

    Reply
  5. Adam Selzer

    These things can go around streets for decades before newspapers mention them. It's not even unheard of for them to survive via oral tradition for centuries between publications. This one hasn't been a game as long as some others have, but I'm sure it'd been traveling around a lot by the 70s. The "riddle" is generally listed as centuries old, though I don't have a good source on that.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    I learned this version as a child in Upper Michigan, near the border of Canada, in the late 1960s.

    Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
    All dressed in black, black, black
    With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
    All down her back, back, back.
    She could not read, read, read,
    She could not write, write, write,
    But she could smoke, smoke, smoke,
    Her father's pipe, pipe, pipe.
    She got so high, high, high
    She touched the sky, sky, sky.
    And she didn't come back, back, back
    Till the 4th of July -ly, -ly!

    Reply
  7. ladyarkham

    I swear that the version I grew up with has, after the elephants "Didn't come back, back, back, 'till the 4th of July, ly, ly."

    "But that's a lie, lie, lie,
    Her doctor said, said, said,
    She bumped her head, head, head,
    On a piece of corn bread, bread, bread,

    She went too far, far, far,
    To buy a car, car, car,
    And that's the end, end, end,
    Of Mary Mack, Mack, Mack."

    I haven't been able to find this variation *anywhere,* and now my fiance thinks I'm crazy (and possibly disturbed) for coming up with this.

    Reply
    1. Christine

      I don’t remember Everything from the tune but I do remember the part about not being a lie

      Reply
  8. Amanda Rose

    You are a GEN-UIS!!!!

    Reply
  9. LaeLee

    I always ended my version of Mary Mack after the "til the 4th of July, ly, ly" with,

    "she went up stairs stair stairs
    To brush her hair hair hair
    And go to bed bed bed
    But she bumped her head head head
    On a piece of corn bread bread bread

    Ms Mary died died died
    Her parents cried cried cried
    And they ate the corn bread bread bread
    That killed Mary Mack Mack Mack"

    Reply
  10. lorddvirgil

    Many of these lines were used as song lyrics by Rufus Thomas for the hit song "Walking the Dog" which was later recorded by (among many others), Aerosmith.

    Reply
  11. Turnmytears2roses

    This is closest to the version i grew up with in the uk! Only the write and read verses were switched round, and then continues…
    She asked her mother, mother, mother,
    for fifty penc, pence, pence
    to go and see, see, see
    the elephant climb, climb, climb,
    up the big tall fence, fence, fence

    he climbed so high, high, high
    that he didnt come back, back, back
    until the 4th of july, july, july

    she went to bed, bed, bed
    and bumped her head, head, head
    and now shes dead.

    A bit morbid at the end, i havent seen this verion anywhere else and ive no idea who started it in our playground.

    Reply
  12. Turnmytears2roses

    This is closest to the version i grew up with in the uk! Only the write and read verses were switched round, and then continues…
    She asked her mother, mother, mother,
    for fifty penc, pence, pence
    to go and see, see, see
    the elephant climb, climb, climb,
    up the big tall fence, fence, fence

    he climbed so high, high, high
    that he didnt come back, back, back
    until the 4th of july, july, july

    she went to bed, bed, bed
    and bumped her head, head, head
    and now shes dead.

    A bit morbid at the end, i havent seen this verion anywhere else and ive no idea who started it in our playground.

    Reply
  13. Yarrow Carmichael-Rice

    This is almost exactly the version we skipped rope and clapped to as kids in 1980's North Carolina, US.

    Reply
  14. Yarrow Carmichael-Rice

    This is almost exactly the version we skipped rope and clapped to as kids in 1980's North Carolina, US.

    Reply
  15. Yuridiana

    Mis Mary Mack Mack Mack
    All dressed in black, black, black
    With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
    All down her back, back, back.
    She cannot read, read, read,
    She cannot write, write, write,
    But she can smoke, smoke, smoke,
    Her father’s pipe, pipe, pipe.

    She asked her mother, mother, mother
    For 50 pence, pence, pence
    To watch the elephants, elephants, elephants
    Jump over the fence, fence, fence.
    On Fourth of July ly ly
    They jumped so high, high, high
    They touched the sky, sky, sky
    And never came back, back back
    Till Fourth of July ly ly
    she went to bed, bed, bed
    and bumped her head, head, head
    and now shes dead dead dead

    Reply
  16. willow

    when i heard it, it ended with mary mack climbing the fence, she then climbed so high she reached the sky, and bumped her head and now shes dead./

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *