Connected through Children Songs

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 50 cents, cents, cents

To see the elephants, elephants, elephants

Jump over the fence, fence, fence.


They jumped so high, high, high

They reached the sky, sky, sky

And they didn’t come back, back, back

‘Til the 4th of July, ly, ly!


Growing up games such “Mary Mack”, “Tweet Baby”, and “Mail Man” flood our childhood memories. Whether it was in the schoolyard during recess or home with our family members these games were a huge part of our social lives. While playing these childhood games, we were unaware of the deep rooted history and connection we had to our African roots through these games.

Play Party songs were a celebration for children and young adults that features games, singing, and dancing without instrumental accompaniment. References to these “ring games” or “play games” appear in journals and contemporary writings during the antebellum period. Many slaves referred to these games as being enjoyed by both children and adults, and described them as involving body movement. While many of the Play Party songs were based on melodies and lyrics that were similar to White pioneers but, African approaches to rhythm and traditional performance practices such as repetition in choruses and rhythmic structures. As early as 1890, African American children were described as participating in song games. They are described as being “played by many some open field. Generally towards the end of the day” because during slavery, many children were expected to work so there was little time for amusement.

While there are many elements that are rooted from African dance, music, and traditions, Blacks evolved to their environment and used both African traditions and American traditions to create a style of their own. Some of the common elements were circle formations, stylized dance movements, formations, and forms. Some game songs required the children to partner up with each other, a practice not usually associated with African performances, as they tend to separate the women and men. These children songs have the same characteristic as children game songs within African cultures. Children in slavery played these game to take their minds off harsh plantation life. These songs were not sung for entertainment and thus, were not profitable and no one made money off of it.

Supposedly, Miss Mary Mack was symbolic in that the Merrimack was an ironclad Union ship coming to fight the confederate army. It built with rivets “silver buttons” and  ships have always been referred to as females. There may also be symbolism behind asking her mother “the Confederate States of America” for fifty cents “a metaphor for change” to see the elephants symbol of the Republican party who “freed the slaves”jump the fence “Mason-Dixon line”. Whether this is true or not, it is apparent that we still use these songs to take our minds off of the real world and create a reality of our own.

These games served as amusement and a way of communication to us the same way it did generations ago during slavery. While clapping and the patting juba were used as alternatives to instruments, we have kept these child songs around. Oral history has always been a part of African Culture, and these children songs still being around shows how strong that tradition is. So the next time someone asks you “How are you still connected to your African ancestors?” simply play one of your favorite childhood games and say “Music.Rhythm.Childhood Games”

By: Asia and Tiara Julien



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