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Portrait of a man sitting in a chair
Jesse Walter Fewkes. Photo by Harris & Ewing. LC Prints and Photographs Division: //

What’s in a Whistle? The Curious Beginnings of an Ending Trope

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This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Kelly Revak.

As I covered in a previous blog post, I have been exploring the “experimental recordings’ of Jesse Walter Fewkes and discovering a number of items of folkloric interest therein. One of these Fewkes recordings is at least somewhat well-known and that is this one:

In this recording, and two other nearly (but not quite) identical recordings, Fewkes is demonstrating the phonograph, presumably to people who have never seen one before.

Though Edison invented the basis of the technology over a decade earlier, the commercially viable phonograph was not on the market until 1888. In A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography, Erika Brady discusses the history of wax cylinders and Fewkes’ role in bringing recorded sound to bear on ethnography. She noted that, while the objects of study (the so-called “primitive peoples” at the time) seemed to accept the introduction of phonograph into their midst as no more surprising than the rest of the “white man’s culture”, “In contrast, it was participants in American mainstream culture who maintained an attitude of mythically charged wonder, albeit somewhat posed and affected, toward the phonograph and its inventor.” Brady suggests that the American encounter with the phonograph:

…thrust an individual into a real-life folktale adventure: a meeting with a magic speaking object… Even after the first timer grasped the mechanical nature of the machine, some found the temptation to “reincarnate” the voice in the machine in terms of a metaphorical personality almost irresistible. Curiously, this pattern is much more marked among Euro-American users, and can seldom be inferred from reports concerning responses of native peoples. Although the rationalizing image of the little man in the machine was soon abandoned, the tendency to personify the machine remained.

(As an aside, Brady notes that the phonograph corresponds to Motif D 1610, “Magic Speaking Object” and D 1620 “Magic Automata” within the Thompson Motif Index)

Of course, this personification of a machine is precisely the attitude we find with Fewkes in this recording.

Brady argues that this may represent a form of humor, a playing with the pretense of the machine-as-person, as in the 1878 sheet music “The song of Mr. Phonograph.”

My name is Mr. Phonograph, and I’m not so very old
My father he’s called Edison, and I’m worth my weight in gold.
The folks they just yell into my mouth and now I’m saying what’s true:
For just to speak to me and I’ll speak it back, and you’ll see I can talk like you.
-credited to Professor H.A.H. von O’Graff

Cover image for "The Song of Mister Phonograph" (1878)
Cover image for “The Song of Mister Phonograph” (1878)

In her discussion, Brady cites one of Fewkes’s “Mr. Phonograph” spiels. There are three distinct recordings where he goes through versions of this monologue.

But did you notice that little whistle at the end?

Let’s listen again:

That peculiar whistle appears at the end of all three of Fewkes’ “Mr. Phonograph” recordings. Does it sound familiar?

This melodic snippet is called “Over the Fence is Out” and was well known both as a melody and a phrase by the end of the 19th Century. Moreover, Fewkes was not the first to use this on a wax cylinder. He may have been imitating Theo Wangemann, who worked as something like a recording engineer for Edison. Wangemann actually received complaints for always ending his cylinders with a “particular musical trademark.”


“I wish to mention to you privately that I notice on the end of all Wangemann’s cylinders a peculiar musical trade mark – like this:

I think that on the end of an operatic selection particularly this musical trade mark is a little out of place.”   Letter to Edison’s secretary in  January 1889

I do not think that there is any reason to believe that Wangeman invented this tune, or even the tradition of its use, although he was almost certainly the first to record it.

A textual reference appears in a collection of short stories entitled “The Runaway Browns,” in 1892.

“…He whistled a brief and peculiar melody which Paul vaguely remembered having heard as a boy.
‘What is that tune?’ he inquired of the proprietor, for there seemed to him something peculiarly suggestive about it. “‘Over the fence is out,”” said the proprietor.”

If the suggestion in 1892 is that the tune is remembered from boyhood, it can be presumed to originate much earlier.

The June 1880 issue of Railway age monthly and railway service magazine cites particular whistles that train engineers would use to announce their arrival home to their families, including one causing his train to holler “over the fence is out, boys” (p.343). Clearly by the 1880s the melody was already deeply ingrained in popular consciousness. In 1873, composer John Knowles Paine wrote a piece based on this melody, “Fuga giocosa” (Joyous Fugue).  Walter Raymond Spalding writing in 1920 claimed Paine’s piece was based on a “well known street tune” which he refers to, somewhat incongruously as “Rafferty’s lost his pig”.

I suspect the melody goes back to even earlier musical traditions in minstrel shows.  In 1894 one of the first published catalogs of commercially available pre-recorded wax cylinders used  a caricature drawing featuring our melody to introduce a cylinder of recordings of minstrel shows. Its placement and usage in the catalog implies that immediately upon seeing the notes, one would understand that a minstrel subject was being introduced. This suggests to me that the melody itself was recognizable by this time as associated with the minstrel tradition. (This sketch was copyrighted by John P. Hogan in 1890. Hogan was a dancer and choreographer and may have been trying to copyright the dance steps the figures display, though choreography was beyond the bounds of copyright until nearly 100 years later in 1978)

The history of the phrase “over the fence is out”, seems to stem from a stick and ball game that predates baseball, called “One Old Cat” – a ball game in which a batter hits a ball and then tries to run from home base to the single other base and back home again without being put out by the other players. It was a game to play when you didn’t have very many players and ideal for 2-4 people. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary dates this game back to 1837 but other sources suggest even earlier. “Over the fence is out” was one of the rules of this game which was described in 1909 as follows, “The rule meant that if the ball was accidentally sent over the fence, the batter was “out” and that, no matter how fierce the contest had been, hostility was suspended until the ball could be brought back.”

This “suspension of hostilities” idea gives a key to the  meaning of the phrase, whether used verbally, musically, or both. An 1885 popular song by J. P. Skelly shows the nearly proverbial nature of the phrase in its use in non-sporting context:

Copyright, 1885, by H. W. Petrie
Words and Music by J. P. Skelly

Two little boys were playing together,
Playing “old cat” in the field:
Harry was gentle, Dick was a bully,
Always unwilling to yield.
Always unfair, if Harry was winning,
How he could bluster and shout,
When Harry would say: “It’s my turn to play;
Over the fence is out!”

Over the fence is out! Now it is my turn to play;
Whatever we do, Dick, you know it is true, you want everything your own way;
You won’t give a fellow a show, but now it is my turn to shout;
You can’t always win, so kindly give in-over the fence is out!

Years passed away, the boys grew to manhood,
They became rivals in trade,
Dick ever trying Harry to ruin,
While his own profit he made:
But a day came when wild speculation
Left him in trouble and doubt.
Then Harry could say: “Your bills you can’t pay-
Over the fence is out!”

Soon they found out they loved the same maiden;
Dick tried to win her in vain;
While he grew jealous, Hurry was favored,
And all her smiles he would gain.
Tender and true, she vowed that she loved him,
Happy the end came about,
And when they were wed, to Dick Harry said,
“Over the fence is out!”


The song starts out talking about the game Old Cat, and the how Harry would be bullied by Dick, who would “bluster and shout” even though “over the fence was out.” In the subsequent verses, the same phrase is used to show repeatedly, in various circumstances, the idea of an ending, with connotations of “give up” or ”give in, it’s over”. I think this is the understood meaning of the phrase, verbally or musically – That it is an indicator finality. This is why it would be immediately understood as an ending to a cylinder, as in “that’s all” or “it’s over” – “Over the fence is out.” This would be an early example of a signoff, which would become a popular way to end a recording, in the same way people would encounter “that’s all folks” or “say goodnight Gracie” in later years.

Though the phrase “over the fence is out” today is far less popular, the melody has never really left the popular consciousness, and is still most often used as a signature melody at the end of something. You’ve probably heard it in hundreds of commercials and cartoons, and it is even present, as a whistle, as the very last element of the Spongebob Squarepants theme song!



Comments (2)

  1. The whole time I was reading this I was trying to remember where I knew that tune from.

    • Thanks for reading the post! We hope it shed some light on the origins of the tune.

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