Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (PB).
CB: So what was it?
PB: It was a hand clapping song. There were specific hand claps that went with it, and it was for two persons, or three persons. And it was called Miss Mary Mack”
CB: “How did it go?”
PB: “Old 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 the animals animal animals
Jump over the fence fence fence
They jumped so high high high
They touched the sky sky sky
And they never came back back back
To Mary Mack Mack Mack”
CB: “So what do you think is the meaning of the song?”
PB: “The meaning of the song? I just… I think it was mostly nonsense to be honest. I think it was just rhymy, and she had to ask her mother for the money to go to the zoo basically, and then she fantasizes about the animals who can fly over the fence.”
CB: “Why do you think its important and people do it?”
PB: “I think it connects them with all the people in the group that they’re doing it with. And it can help improve their skill and memory”
CB: “Where and in what context would people do it?”
PB: “Um, gosh you know sometimes, if you’re at like a sporting a event for one of your relatives. Like your sister plays softball and you don’t, or if your brother plays football and you’re bored, then like a bunch of the younger kids would get together to pass the time. They would kind see how fast they could do it, and do it faster and faster each time or in line at school the kids would do it.”
Miss Mary Mack is just one of many hand games that children grow up playing. My informant actually taught me this game and many others like it. Because the games are so popular and widespread, they are able to connect kids who might have very different experiences.
I interviewed my informant in person. We were in my bedroom on my bed, and the conversation was very comfortable and casual. I had heard and played the hand game many times beforehand.
I grew up with hand games being a very gendered activity. Only girls would play the games at school, and as my informant described, girls would often use them as entertainment while boys played the more stereotypically masculine games such as sports. I learned Miss Mary Mack from my mother, but learned other hand games from siblings, cousins, aunts, and my grandma. It often followed the pattern where older women would teach young girls the games. Like Miss Mary Mack, the songs often had no clear meaning but were repeated for amusement. The songs did often have connections to common aspects of childhood, as is seen when Mary asks her mother for permission and money to go to the zoo. I think that these games represent the way that gender roles are passed down through society. While it was never explicitly stated, the older generation’s involvement in sharing these games clearly state that they approve of them. The girls who learn them then learn that these are more acceptable methods of entertainment than other forms of play.
For another version of the Miss Mary Mack hand game see YouTube video “Miss Mary Mack hand clap” uploaded by Tom Cecil. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hP9V0S51GVo