Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Mary Had a Steamboat" AKA "Miss Susie"

The cover of Alf Danielson's "Mary Had a Steamboat" single

"Miss Susie" is a schoolyard rhyme like "Bang Bang Lulu," "Miss Lucy Had a Baby," and Benny Bell's "Shaving Cream" that uses a crafty rhyme scheme to make listeners expect swear words that the song humorously fails to deliver. I learned this song in the 1970s as "Mary Had a Steamboat."

The Wikipedia article on "Miss Susie" provides lyrics that were collected from different states at different points in time, and all of the versions are different from the version I heard in Muncie, Indiana, in the 1970s. In these many versions, the lyrics of "Miss Susie," "Miss Lucy Had a Baby," and "Bang Bang Lulu" are often jumbled together. Here's the version that I learned: 

Mary had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Mary pulled the wrong cord
And blew us all to hell-

O, operator
Give me number nine
If you disconnect me
I'll kick your behind

The 'frigerator
There is a piece of glass
Mary sat upon it
And cut her little

Ask me no more questions
I'll tell you no more lies
The boys are in the bathroom
Playing with their

Flies are in the city
Fleas are in the park
Boys and girls are kissing in the
D-A-R-K dark 

This rhyme was archaic even in the 1970s. Its references to steamboats and switchboard operators were ones that I recognized only from black-and-white movies and television shows. Even as a kid, I questioned Mary's ability to sit on a piece of glass that was behind the refrigerator.

As a kid, I was also struck by what I perceived as the sentimental final couplet. After all of these almost-dirty jokes and unpleasant images of things blowing up and people getting cut, the rhyme ends with boys and girls kissing in the park. That couplet made the song seem almost profound. The song seemed to be saying: Despite all of these trials and tribulations, love goes on. At least, that's how I interpreted it, but I was a sentimental kid. 

I don't know how far back this rhyme goes, but folklorists have collected it throughout North America from the beginning of the 20th century. "Bang Bang Lulu" seems to be derived from a British rhyme called "Bang Bang Rosie," so it may be even older than the others. In 1925, The Catalina Islander newspaper in Avalon, California, ran a poem by a 9- or 10-year-old kid that included references to Mary and her steamboat. 

These songs—"Miss Susie" and "Bang Bang Lulu"— were largely confined to the schoolyard, but a number of recorded versions exist. Emilie Autumn recorded a version of "Miss Susie" called "Miss Lucy Had Some Leeches" that was included on her 2007 anthology A Bit o' This & That. Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts recorded "Bang Bang Lou Lou" for their 1963 album On Campus, and Lloyd Terrell recorded a reggae version in 1968. Here's the Doug Clark recording: 

And here's a much older version—from 1936—by Roy Acuff, recorded under the name Bang Boys. It's called "When Lulu's Gone." 

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