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!