I asked my mother for fifty cents

January 04, 2012 By: erik Category: Music, Offspring, Videos 1,654 views

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I asked my mother for fifty cents (thumbnail)When my parents last visited, I got to hear my mother sing songs to my daughter that I haven’t heard since I was a child and she was singing to me. One of them was this rhyme that Nora has come to call “July”, since she loves to emphasize the ultimate word. It goes like this:

I asked my mother for fifty cents
To see the elephant jump the fence.
He jumped so high,
He reached the sky,
And didn’t come down ’til the fourth of July

Searching for the origins of this rhyme has been quite interesting. It seems to primarily be a playground rhyme sung whilst jumping rope. There are some indications that the origin is from the African American traditions in the southern United States. For instance, it is included on the 1956 album Music from the South, Vol 5.

It later appeared as a verse in Rufus Thomas’ 1965 classic, Walking the Dog, which was covered by Jackie Shane, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Sonics, The Count Bishops, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Grateful Dead and Aerosmith, among others. Quite a list, eh? Here’s the original version, which I think might be the best of them all:

I suspect the version my daughter learned from her grandmother is much closer to the original playground chant. Without further ado, I present I Asked My Mother For Fifty Cents:

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  • Anonymous

    Funny, I’d never heard that song before.  Nora singing it is just the cutest thing ever! 🙂

  • aquariumdrinker

    There may be some additional angles to be found by googling the exact phrase “cents cents cents to see” — the number of cents and elephants are variable. Just had time for a quick look, but saw a couple of century-old results in Google Books.

    Did you catch the Radiolab short about Lincoln Beachey and the schoolyard chant that bears his name? Good stuff.

    • Ah, yes. Miss Mary Mack! That does ring a tinny bell.

      Yes, I did catch that RadioLab. It was excellent. The memetic histories of playground songs sure is fascinating.

      • Kaley Hendrickson

        Yes! Was just coming to say that…we would sing it while doing a handclap: first both hands on the lap, then crossed on the chest, then a regular handclap, then the three repeated words while clapping our friend’s hand.

        Miss – lap
        Ma – crossed on chest
        ry – simple clap
        Mack, Mack, Mack – slapping friend’s hands

  • Betsy

    I actually learned this from my Dad. I always figured it was a Brooklyn ditty. When he was a kid in the 20s 50 cents was a very big deal. Ten chocolate sodas.

  • Virginia LoPresto

    I am from Brooklyn too and learned this as a kid. (I am in my early 50’s). It may have been while learning to jump rope. I seem to remember something rythmic happening as we sang it. Also, it was sung ” I asked my Mother Mother Mother, for 50 cents cents cents, to see the elephant elephant elephant..” etc. – ginny

  • drakar

    Hello, I am from North Florida which is really the South and remember this song as a child. If I am not mistataken it was 15 cents not 50 which would actually be a lot of money in the early part of the 20th century. Also there was another version, after to see the elephant jump the fence, went as follows,,,he jumped so low he stubbed his toe and that was the end of the elephant show!

  • Harry

    Well, when I was a kid in the 30s there was a following, rather naughty, verse after the jumping the fence verse It went:

    I asked my mother for fifty more,
    To see the elephant scrub the floor.
    He scrubbed so hard he let a fart,
    And blew the circus all apart.

    Remember, I heard this when I was but a wee kid.