"Miss Susie had a steamboat", also known as "Hello Operator", "Miss Suzy", and many other names, is the name of an American schoolyard rhyme in which each verse leads up to a rude word or profanity which is revealed in the next verse as part of an innocuous word or phrase. Originally used as a jump-rope rhyme, it is now more often sung alone or as part of a clapping game. Hand signs sometimes accompany the song, such as pulling on the bell in the first verse or making a phone gesture in the second.
This song is sometimes combined or confused with "Miss Lucy had a baby", which is sung to the same tune and also served as a jump-rope song. That song developed from verses of much older (and cruder) songs which were most commonly known as "Bang Bang Rosie" in Britain, "Bang Away Lulu" in Appalachia, and "My Lula Gal" in the West. The variants including a woman with an alligator purse urging the baby's mother to vote have been seen as a reference to Susan B. Anthony, an American suffragette, and may be responsible for the steamboat owner's most common name today.
The rhyme is arranged in quatrains, with an A-B-C-B rhyme scheme. The rhyme is organized by its meter, a sprung rhythm in trimeter. Accentual verse (including sprung rhythm) is a common form in English folk verse, including nursery rhymes and jump-rope rhymes. The rhyme approaches taboo words, only to cut them off and modify them with an enjambment. It shares much of the same melody as the 1937 "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" used by Warner Bros. as the theme to their Looney Tunes cartoons.
The song has developed many variations over an extended period, as is common for such rhymes. Even 21st-century versions, however, typically preserve long-outdated references to the dangerousness of 19th-century steamers and to the need for a switchboard operator to manually connect a telephone call.
The earliest recorded version—about a girl named Mary—appears among the vaudeville jokes collected by Ed Lowry during his career in the 1910s, '20s, and '30s, although versions about Fulton (popularly credited with the invention of the steamboat) and Lulu (the star of "Bang Bang Lulu") may record older traditions. The Lulu tradition—including "Miss Lucy had a baby"—already record enjambed double entendres during the World Wars, but the first version of this song known to have done so—versions about Fulton and a girl named Helen—date to the 1950s.
Later versions developed by embellishment: adding, removing, and adjusting stanzas involving kissing, boys in bathrooms, a little black boy, bras, King Arthur, questions and lies, German spies, raving aunts, &c. While the initial stanzas were fairly stable by the late 20th century, the folklorist Josepha Sherman noted that two unrelated children in 1990s New York took the change from "Miss Lucy" to "Ms. Lucy" for granted. An adaptation—"Miss Lucy had some leeches"—has been recorded by Emilie Autumn and another—"Mrs. Landers was a health nut"—featured in the South Park episode "Something You Can Do with Your Finger". The children's version has also appeared in The Simpsons.
Numerous versions exist, varying across time and regionally:
- Mayfield, Josh. "Hello Operator" at Inky's Linkies. 3 Apr 2004. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Levitt, Paul. Vaudeville Humor: The Collected Jokes, Routines, and Skits of Ed Lowry, p. 125. SIU Press (Carbondale), 2002. Accessed 12 Jan 2014.
- "Tuyere Blasts". Iowa Transit. October 1924.
- Yannucci, Lisa. "When Lucy Had a Steam Boat" at Mama Lisa's World: Children's Songs and Rhymes from Around the World. 2014. Accessed 12 Jan 2014. Ms Yannucci credited her version as from Long Island in the 1970s.
- Bohren, Django. "Lulu had a steamboat" at Milk Milk Lemonade. 27 Sept 2010. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Crowley, John. Endless Things: A Part of Ægypt, pp. 428 ff. Small Beer Press (Northampton), 2007. Accessed 14 Jan 2014.
- Schultz, Emily. Joyland, p. 82. ECW Press (Toronto), 2006. Accessed 14 Jan 2014.
- Including Mary, "Oh, it ain't—", "When Lucy had a steamboat", "Lulu had a steamboat", Miss Sophie, and Miss Molly.
- Powell, Azizi. "Similarities & Differences between 'Bang Bang Lulu' & 'Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat'" at Pancocojams. 16 Oct 2013. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Cray, Ed. The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs 2nd ed., p. 173 ff. UIP (Champaign), 1999. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Logsdon, Guy. The Whorehouse Bells Are Ringing and Other Songs Cowboys Sing, pp. 154 ff. 1995 reprint of UIP (Champaign), 1989. Accessed 13 Jan 2014. (NB: Logsdon's versions are set to the separate tune of the bluegrass traditional "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms".)
- Hollihan, Kerrie. Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote, p. 78. Chicago Review Press (Chicago), 2012. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Henninger, Jessie. "Miss Susie Had a Steamboat: I. Structure" at The Raveled Sleeve. 29 Nov 2008. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Smith, Ronald. Comedy on Record: the Complete Critical Discography, p. 634. Garland Publishing, 1988.
- Henninger, Jessie. "Miss Susie Had a Steamboat: II. Evolution" at The Raveled Sleeve. 29 Nov 2008. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Swede, George. The Steam Tug, p. 17. Xlibris, 2010. Accessed 14 Jan 2014.
- Henninger, Jessie. "Miss Susie Had a Steamboat: V. Versions of the Rhyme Used in This Essay" at The Raveled Sleeve. 29 Nov 2008. Accessed 12 Jan 2014.
- The Mudcat Cafe. "Origins: Ask Me No Questions rhymes". Apr 2006. Accessed 13 Jan 2014.
- Sherman, Josepha. "Gopher Guts and Army Trucks: The Modern Evolution of Children's Folk Rhymes" in Children's Folklore Review, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring 1999). Accessed 12 Jan 2014.
- Emilie Autumn. "Miss Lucy had some leeches" hosted at MetroLyrics. 2007.
- South Park. "Something You Can Do with Your Finger" at South Park Studios. 2010. Accessed 14 Jan 2014.
- South Park. "Something You Can Do with Your Finger" at Wikiquote. 2010. Accessed 14 Jan 2014.
- The Simpsons. "Fat Man and Little Boy". 2004.
- Hill, Sherry. "Some Funny Poems I Remember" in From the Hill. 19 April 2011. Accessed 12 Jan 2014.
- A similar version—but with the steamboat going to heaven and Fulton going "to hellllll-o..."—is recorded in Payne, Johnny. Kentuckiana, p. 91. Northwestern University Press (Evanston), 1997.
- Straight Dope. "Lulu had a steamboat". 25 Mar 2009. Accessed 14 Jan 2014.