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.
“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.