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Age old playmates: Miss Lucy, Suzie and Mary Mack

by Mellissa Martinez

I recently visited a local refugee family with my friend Jennifer, where we found ourselves surrounded by three extremely excited—and jumpy—young girls. Following their lead, we sat on the floor and started playing. Sitting across from the oldest, I placed my hands in the air and began to sing.

As if following an unwritten girl guidebook, she immediately put her hands up to mimic mine and we began clapping and chanting in unison: Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack; all dressed in BLACK, BLACK, BLACK; with silver BUTTONS, BUTTONS, BUTTONS; all down her BACK, BACK, BACK. 

For me, the words came slowly back from my Chaparral days, while for her, the rhyme was new but also familiar—like most six year olds, she had heard it on the playground.

Soon, Jennifer and I launched into Say say oh playmate; come out and play with me; and bring your dollies three; climb up my apple tree… Although we faltered on a couple of words and claps, for the most part, we slipped right back into our childhood groove (and giggles). Unlike the rhymes and songs taught to children by adults (Duck, Duck Goose, Hokey Pokey, Ring Around the Rosie, etc.), clapping chants are passed down orally by children.

A sailor went to sea, sea, sea and Miss Mary Mack continue to be popular in other English speaking countries, such as England, Australia and New Zealand. Although the sailor tune originated in England, we, in Southern California, created our own version in the 70s: Three sailors went to Disneyland.

Miss Mary Mack comes from the ironclad US Civil War battleship, the Merrimack. Built in 1855, she was black with silver rivets (accounting for Mary’s outfit). Unlike the other tunes, which have many versions, the only words to have changed in this rhyme over the last half a century are fifteen cents, which got upped to fifty cents. Although this might have had something to do with inflation, I suspect that the phonetic similarity of ‘fifteen’ and ‘fifty’ is responsible for the shift. 

Another defining characteristic of these clapping songs is that they tend to be more popular with girls than boys. The fact that young girls are known to be linguistic innovators may be one reason why. Another study notes that there is “an element of gender shaping and a working-through of cultural expectations.”

The language and body movements of most of the rhymes indicate an awareness of sexuality and gender roles. The extremely popular Lemonade Crunchy Ice involves turning around, touching the ground and kicking your boyfriend out of town, while Hot Dog on a Stick boasts: it’s not because I’m dirty, not because I’m clean, it’s just because I kissed a boy behind a magazine. Indeed, these chants tackle themes of love, boyfriends, kissing and babies.

The slightly risqué nature of these verses probably adds to their popularity and staying power. Miss Susie, a profanity avoidance rhyme from the early 1900s, skirts around taboo subjects with word play: Miss Suzie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, Miss Suzie went to heaven, the steamboat went to…HELLo operator, give me number nine, and if you disconnect me, I’ll kick you from…BEHIND the refrigerator…and so on. The “hello operator” line tells us that the song was probably composed in the early 1900s.

The Miss Lucy and Miss Suzie songs, which follow the same tune, came from the same source—probably an old Black-American banjo song from the late 1800s, “Shout Lulu.” There were several versions of Lulu songs from that time, most of which were crass and edgy; some even suggested that Lulu had several lovers. In the children’s renditions, Lulu became “Miss Lucy” and later “Miss Suzie.”

The most popular adaptation tells the story of Miss Lucy’s baby, Tiny Tim, who she puts in the bathtub to see if he can swim. One theory as to why she her baby in the bathtub is the Diphtheria epidemic in the early 1900s. Indeed, at the end of the chant, Miss Lucy calls the doctor; the doctor calls the nurse; the nurse calls the lady with the alligator purse. 

These three characters recur in the same order in most of the Lucy and Suzie rhymes. There is some disagreement as to who the lady with the alligator purse represents, although she is always called as the last resort. Some believe she was a social worker (alligator purse referring to the dress code of the profession), while others insist that she represented a herbalist or non-traditional health care provider. In one version of the chant, Lucy punches the doctor, kicks the nurse, but pays the lady with the alligator purse. 

The inclusion of Black vernacular, such as ‘Miss’ (which was reserved for young white women in the early 1900s) indicates that many of these rhymes are rooted in African American gathering songs.

Another example is the classic Down, Down Baby. The shimmy shimmy coco pop, shimmy shimmy pow of this tune resonate with a much wider audience than schoolgirls. In fact, the lines have recently been sampled in the modern rap song, “Country Grammar,” by Nelly. The hand clapping and body movements that accompany Down, Down Baby include snaps, hip shakes and very circular clapping. In other words, they can be quite perplexing to those who didn’t learn them at age seven.

These very complicated clapping patterns and chorus repetition make these games perfect vehicles for language learning and the development of concentration, memory and coordination. One study, reported in Science Daily, found that children “who spontaneously perform hand-clapping songs in the schoolyard during recess have neater handwriting, write better and make fewer spelling errors.” Additionally, pattern-finding and pattern-manipulation skills gained through this type of cooperative play can help children identify mathematical and musical patterns as they grow.

While I’m not sure if that was the case for me, I do believe that learning and clapping these rhymes served many purposes. My girlfriends and I spent hours falling into fits of hysteria over these silly songs. We felt close and united as we learned to collaborate, correct mistakes and improve our groove as we and sang about topics that would be important for years to come.