Mary Ellen at the church turned up
Her Ma’ turned up
And her pa’ turned up
Her sister Gert
Her rich uncle Bert
And the person with the long white shirt turned up
But no bridegroom with the ring turned up
A telegram boy with his nose turned up
Brought a telegram that said
He didn’t want to wed
And they found him in the river with his toes turned up
Katherine learned this song in the mid 1990s from her grandfather. She said that she was probably around 7 or 8 when she first heard it at a large family gathering during Thanksgiving. She is of Scottish descent from the Mac Neill clan, which was later shortened to Neil to sound more American when her family immigrated. Her grandfather would sing it during every family function because he said it was a Scottish tradition and that she just picked it up from him and began to sing along.
This song is most often performed during family get-togethers, when most of the family is gathered around one area. Katherine said that she has never heard it during any other time. It is sung by people of all ages and generally performed in festive atmospheres.
Supposedly traced back to her Scottish roots, Katherine only remembers it because it was funny and reminds her of her grandfather. She does not think that there is any special significance other than being purely for entertainment, and is unsure of any possible meaning besides the surface one. She finds it funny and a little sad that the groom would rather commit suicide than to marry the bride.
I think the song carries more meaning than meets the eye. From the brides point of view, the song can actually be very humiliating. If it is sung in the wrong context, such as right before a wedding, I can see it starting problems. Also, I think that perhaps there probably used to be a time during Scottish history when it was more desired for a man to remain a bachelor and to take a wife would be worse than death. This song was probably created as an exaggeration of the cultural norm that might have been true at the time of creation.
A version of the song can be found in Patricia Sheehans memoirs published in 2003, a mere five years ago. There are some minor variations, such as the person being a parson, a member of the clergy, changes in names of family members, and mixtures in line orders, but the song generally remains the same in meaning. However in the memoir, instead of the song being sung during family occasions, her grandmother sings it to put her brother to sleep. Her family also resides in Belfast, Ireland, not Scotland. The song is not restricted to Scotland and has probably been spread from Scotland to Ireland or vice versa. These differences demonstrate that there can be multiple meanings for the same piece of folklore. Sung in different places and times, the whole significance of the song can change.
In particular, this song has also been published in sheet music in 1924 by Herbert Rule. The song is titled Turned Up! and was found in the National Library of Australias Digital Collections Music. Attached is the sheet music. This copy is yet another variation of the same song with the same overarching theme.
Annotation: Sheehan, Patricia. And So I Did: a Northern Irish Memoire. Infinity. 75.
Annotation: Rule, Herbert. Turned Up! [music]: song. 1924.