AS grew up in Ontario, Canada, and remembers playing this clapping game on the playground growing up. This piece was performed as a form of play between two children in coordination with a clapping game. The game consisted of both participants clapping their two hands together, then clapping on of their hands to the other person’s (right hand to right hand) and then repeating, alternating the hand that they clapped against the other participant’s.
“Oh Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, All dressed in black, black black, She asked her mother, mother, mother For fifty cents, cents, cents, She climbed a fence, fence, fence, She went so high, high, high, She didn’t come back, back, back, Till the Fourth of July, -ly, -ly”
“I don’t know why we said fourth of July because that meant nothing to us as kids. But, the point was, is it kept going and going and going and going, and it got slowly faster and faster and faster until one of you messed up. Then you probably slapped ‘em or something, I don’t know. So there were lots of variations on that.”
Both the rhythm of the clapping game itself and the song are relatively simple, so once the game and song are learned, the challenge consists in the ability to maintain coordination of singing and clapping in the correct rhythm while continuously increasing the speed. The song rhymes and repeats in sections, which makes it easier to remember.
AS has no idea what the song was about, but still remembers the lyrics and hand movements decades later. Though, with the general trend of folkloric children’s songs being about taboo topics like sex and death, there are some lines that could point in that direction. The lines “She climbed a fence… she went so high… she didn’t come back… till the Fourth of July” seem like they could hint at something darker, especially since they do not clarify how she came down (climbing or falling). The final line also points the origin of the song in the United States, as the Fourth of July is Independence Day in the US. AS grew up in Canada, so, as she mentioned, the date “meant nothing to us as kids.”
When trying to discern the meaning of the song, it’s important to mention that there are other recorded versions of this song that include different variations on the lyrics. In another version, it is not Mary Mack that climbs the fence and doesn’t come down till the Fourth of July, but instead an elephant that jumps the fence, touches the sky, and doesn’t come back till the Fourth of July. For a recording of that version, refer here: “Miss Mary Mack,” Ian Cabeen, USC Digital Folklore Archives, May 17, 2021. http://folklore.usc.edu/miss-mary-mack-2/