16 July 2010

Sing It, Fat Lady!

Today’s question comes from a long-time reader (hi, Mom!) who wants to know where the expression “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” comes from. The expression has been around for a bit, at least since the empty eighties, and it’s roughly equivalent to the old proverb, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” attributed to the well-known cartoon character, Yogi Berra. It means apparently that nothing is settled until all the accounts are totaled up, or something like that.

It’s a good point. I remember years ago as a backgammon game wound down my opponent wanted to throw in the towel, seeing that I clearly had the game won at that point. Like an idiot I pointed out that things were really closer than they looked. “If you were to throw double sixes on the next roll,” I said (and boy have these words stuck with me), “and I were to say get a two and a one on my next, well you could easily win the thing.” And much to my chagrin (I should have kept my mouth shut) my opponent did in fact throw double sixes on his next roll, and I got a two and a one or something equally useless on mine, and I ended up losing. It really ain’t over till it’s, well, over.

But the fat lady—where the hell does she come in? Personally, I first remember hearing the expression shortly after I left college, during the reign of the late unlamented Ronald McReagan, Czar of all the Americas. It was a punch-line to a joke I no longer remember, but the set-up was rather like the old Homer and Jethro routine, where the pair wanders into an opera to get out of the rain thinking they were going to see a western, and instead forty-seven people sung without a horse in sight. Hekyll nudges his buddy during a pause and asks, “Is it over yet, Jekyll?” And his buddy replies, pointing to the soprano, “Nah, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”

So, maybe, it was a bit of belated Green Acres style humor to enlighten the tedium of those dark days when nuclear holocaust lurked just around the corner. Poking fun at the rubes, as it were. Even those of us who wouldn’t be caught dead creeping into an opera house get the joke. But—but—how do sports come into it? Don’t we usually hear it in connection with some sporting event—a dramatic cliffhanger of a ninth-inning foos- or kickball spectacular? “And there he goes, [I hear this in Billy Crystal’s Howard Cosell voice] bobbing and weaving down the stretch, shedding backstops like ninepins into the goal zone and it’s all over!” “Well, Ed, [comes the reply] there’s still two seconds left on the clock and anything can happen. Remember, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”

Okay, well, according to the nearest thing we have to absolute truth written by a roomful of monkeys hitting random keys (full disclosure: I too am a Wikipedia editor) it came about something like this. Ralph Carpenter (described as a Texas Tech sports information director) and Bill Morgan (presumably the nineteenth century baseball player) were calling a game of some sort “in the SWC tournament finals” early in 1976. The score was 72-72, and the dialog went like this:
Bill Morgan: Hey, Ralph, this … is going to be a tight one after all.

Ralph Carpenter: Right. The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
Bill Morgan still remembered the incident in 2006. He believed that Carpenter came up with it on the spur of the moment. “Oh, yeah, it was vintage Carpenter. He was one of the world’s funniest guys.”

A couple of years later it turned up again, after a basketball (is there such a game?) contest in April 1978 between the “San Antonio Spurs” and the “Washington Bullets”. Broadcaster Dan Cook observed after the Spurs victory that “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” meaning that a single victory didn’t determine the outcome of the series.

Now if you’re like me you may well be wondering, what the hell does opera have to do with sports? (Well, other than the fact that I personally detest them both.) Why would an opera metaphor end up as a sports cliché? And also, you know, the fat lady pretty much sings throughout the opera. It’s not like the soprano waits till the end before she sounds off. It’s sort of an ongoing thing.

Well, there is an alternative explanation out there, and in this one the fat lady has a name—Kate Smith. Yes, that Kate Smith, the songbird of the south, whose function in the world (if we believe the supply-siders) was to sell Studebakers and Jell-O, is supposed to be the fat lady of the cliché. She, goes the story, used to finish off sports events of some kind (something called the “World Series” is often mentioned) by singing Israel Isidore Baline’s patriotic hymn “God Bless America” to a no-doubt attentive crowd trying to beat the rush to the exits.

Smith, who weighed a ninth of a ton in her prime, could certainly have been described as a “fat lady,” so that’s one point in the story’s favor, but the rest doesn’t work very well. First, the singing, if any, is usually done at the beginning of sports events, and in fact on those occasions when she did sing for games (more typically a recording was used), it was before the game began. There was even an expression, a reference to the one under discussion, that “It ain’t begun till the fat lady sings.” And also—well, if she did sing at the end of the game, then “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings” wouldn’t actually be true, as the game would have ended before the fat lady sang. Truth may be expecting a lot from a cliché, but still, there are limits to artistic license, aren’t there?

Now I should warn you that this isn’t going to be one of those pieces where at the end I triumphantly announce Aha—it was Jacques Mallet du Pan, writing in The Virginian, and he did it with the Lead Pipe! No, on this one I’m as Clueless as the next guy. But I’ve got to say that neither of these explanations cut it. They both stink of folk etymology, after-the-fact retrojections into the unknown. Campfire stories. Legends.

Is there another option? Well, another story has it—and like the Kate Smith tale I picked this one up surfing the interwaves—that it’s an old Southern proverb that originally ran “Church ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” You see, this explanation has it, in Southern churches services ended with a song usually sung by choir members who (we may suppose) were specially selected for their weight. It was only when these ladies had warbled their best shot that the doors were opened and the parishioners allowed to finally leave, no doubt giving thanks to whatever God they still believed in after all that.

This explanation has at least one merit—church services do indeed use music to cue the audience as to when to stand, when to sit, and when to beat a hasty retreat. I personally examined many church services on this very point for a college paper I wrote for an anthropology class (Music in Culture), and that one fact stands out very clearly in my memory. Music was liminal, a delineator used to separate events. But I don’t see how the fat lady gets into it. Singing, sure, church choirs are even a cliché themselves. But unless, say, Southern Baptists have some special fat-lady tradition I don’t see how the saying is relevant. And again—in my personal observation music is used in church services throughout—not just at the end. It don’t fit—and if it don’t fit, you must acquit.

Apparently quite a few people have written on the subject, but nobody seems to have hit the nail squarely on the thumb. If anybody has something resembling evidence on the subject, let me know. Or write it up in Wikipedia. It has a whole article on the subject.
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