Tag Archives: Hand-game

Miss Mary Mack


My mother, the informant for this piece, tells me that it’s a handclapping game she learned on the playground while growing up in Cloverdale, California during the 1970s. Additionally, she notes that it was one of her favorite games which is why she remembers it so well.


This handclapping game is played by singing the song below, accompanied by a rhythmic pattern of three claps–one during each of the three words in each line. My informant also stated that it can be played at twice the speed, or started slow and gradually increased; this version of the game is usually played as a competition, and the first person to make a mistake loses.

Main Piece:

“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 fif-ty cents, cents, cents

To see the elephant, elephant, elephant

Jump the fence, fence, fence

He jumped so high, high, high

He touched the sky, sky, sky

And didn’t come back, back, back

‘Til the Fourth of July, -ly, -ly


This playground game could be as innocent as it sounds, or, like a great deal of other children’s folklore, could have some kind of metaphorical meaning. If this is the case, it sounds like miss Mary Mack is a young girl who recently lost her father, indicated by her mother’s dressing in all black. Following the same train of thought, the fifty cents she asks for could be the symbolic payment for the ferryman her father needs to pass through the underworld, as was popularized by the Greek myth of Charon. Additionally, the elephant touching the sky and not coming back ’til the Fourth of July could be symbolic of the girl’s father reaching heaven, subsequently being celebrated on the Fourth of July. For this last part to be the case, however, the song would have to have its roots in the Revolutionary War era, which could be possible.

Bo Bo Ski Rotten


The informant, Katie, is a childhood friend of the interviewer. They grew up next door to each other and have been friends for sixteen years.


Katie discusses a childhood game that her and the interviewer used to play with their friends on the playground in Elementary and Middle School. 


“We would all sit in a circle at recess, usually a huge group of us. Each person would put their left hand under the person sitting next to them’s right hand, so if we were sitting next to each other I’d put my left hand under your right hand. Then with the right hand, you put your right hand over the other person’s left hand. We all sing a song and on each beat you take your right hand and swing it around to hit, or more so clap, the person next to you’s hand left hand. For example, when person A’s hand is hit by person Z, then person A must hit the person B’s hand, then person B must hit person C, and so on and so forth, going on in a continuous circle. It’s basically hot potato, but you are passing a hit, instead of a potato. 

The song goes like this [verse one]: Bo bo ski rotten totten / I- I say boys are rotten / Itty bitty rotten totten / Bo bo ski rotten totten / Bo bo ski rotten totten

Then the tempo speeds up and you go really fast.

 Verse two goes: Mickey mouse had a house / Donald Duck messed it up / Who will pay the consequences.

Then it speeds up even more.

Verse three goes: Y O U spells you and you are out.

You do not want to get your hand hit on the word ‘out’, otherwise you will be out of the game. So you can try and move your hand really fast to not get out. If the person who was supposed to hit you, hits their own hand instead, because you moved yours off of there’s fast enough, than that person is out instead of you. It’s a really fun, competitive game. We played it a lot at girl scouts too. In middle school, if boys ever played with us we would change the line “boys are rotten” to “fish are rotten” so that the boys would think we were cool and didn’t hate them.”


This game was really fun, I remember playing it a lot. It is interesting how much folklore happens on the school playground. This is just one example of many hand / song game combos we would play. I’m not sure how we originally learned about it. I assume, we learned it from some girl on the playground, who learned it from someone else, who learned it from someone else, ect. When I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles for college I found myself one night talking with my LA friends about this game. They knew the general premise, but had different words for the song that I can no longer remember. This was fascinating to me as it shows how folklore is so malleable and can adapt and change with every person who tells it.


Background: Informant is a 22 year old male who has lived in California his whole life.

Main Piece:

Interviewer: Did you play any hand games that were not based off of a musical riddle?

Informant: Yes, I remember playing a hand game called Slide. Well at least thats what we called it in school.

Interviewer: How do you play slide?

Informant: Slide is a game where you slide hands with whoever your playing with and then you clap, then clap your left hand to their right and and then your right hand to their left hand. You then clap again and then using your backsides of your hands clap against the backsides of their hands. You also count when you clap, so if you are at 2 then you clap each hand twice before clapping the backsides. You also clap the backsides the same amount of times as the number you’ve counted up to. It seems really easy but when you go at a fast pace it gets really hard.

Interviewer: How do you win?

Informant: Whoever messes up first loses.

Context: Interview with a family member, asking him about any childhood games he played with friends or family.

Thoughts: It is interesting to see how clapping can be such a fun game for kids. It is funny that it is also competitive. I think the game Slide has a proper name. I find it fascinating that the game requires you to multi-task, counting and clapping. Kids get really creative with games.

“Shame Shame Shame” Hand-clap Game

Main Piece:

“Shame Shame Shame,

I don’t want to go to Mexico no more more more,

There’s a big fat policeman at the door door door,

He grabbed me by the collar,

Made me pay a dollar,

I don’t want to go to Mexico no more more more,



This piece was recited to me by my informant in reference to their childhood and elementary school memories. The informant is now a junior in high-school but for their K-8 education, she attended a Spanish immersion public school with a large Mexican population. Kansas City, where the informant lives, has a substantial Spanish-speaking population.


This piece was shared with me several times throughout my life but was recently brought up by her when asking about memories from her childhood. The exact conversation was conducted via cellphone


This piece is very interesting to me, mostly because it seems to be another version of a pretty recognizable childhood game. My informant told me that she learned this hand-clap game from friends while attending a Spanish immersion school. However, as she grew up, she learned that this is just a variant of a more traditionally accepted version of the game. Mostly, the policeman in this version is usually replaced with a bully. In my opinion, this is a reflection of the fear of authority and programs like ICE, for Spanish-speaking immigrants. The school my informant attended had a substantial population of Spanish-speaking students who were first generation United States citizens, if that. As such, when assimilating into United States culture, they adopted childhood games like hand-clap. However, they changed it to replace the classic bully figure with that of police, maybe because they would realistically have grown up being told that they were to be wary of police officers, as it could mean deportation or harsh punishments on account of their status as first generation immigrants. It also seems to place Mexico as an bad place, which further reflects the goal of moving forward and becoming part of the culture there. In this respect, the game is almost pushing one to abandon their original culture in order to adapt, as many of these students were the children of Mexican immigrants who were attempting to make ends meet in a new culture. 

Miss Mary Mack Hand Game

Main Piece:

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