The Spectacle Blog

NPR Wants You To Associate Ice Cream With Racial Guilt

By on 5.15.14 | 9:41PM

Please note that this piece repeats a racial slur in citing an article which ran elsewhere. The slur in that article was not used in a historical, not a pejorative context.

The tune played by ice cream trucks is racist, so you should feel guilty for enjoying a summer treat. Or at least reverently contend with the "intellectual complexity" of racism while you chow down on your Fudgsicle. That is the takeaway from a ridiculous piece on NPR's website by Theodore R. Johnson, III entitled "Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News For You." The premise behind Johnson's story is that the jingle played by countless ice cream trucks across the country is from the tune of an old minstrel show song, the lyrics of which drop the n word and perpetuate crude stereotypes. From the NPR piece:

"Nigger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!" merits the distinction of the most racist song title in America. Released in March 1916 by Columbia Records, it was written by actor Harry C. Browne and played on the familiar depiction of black people as mindless beasts of burden greedily devouring slices of watermelon.

I came across this gem while researching racial stereotypes. I was a bit conflicted on whether the song warranted a listen. Admittedly, though, beneath my righteous indignation, I was rather curious about how century-old, overt racism sounded and slightly amused by the farcical title. When I started the song, the music that tumbled from the speakers was that of the ever-recognizable jingle of the ice cream truck.

Johnson's story attracted all sorts of attention, including a piece in the United Kingdom's Daily Mail which breathlessly reports that "the tune played by ice cream trucks is one of the most racist songs in history." The only problem is that, no, the song played by ice cream trucks is not based on a racist song. From Johnson's piece:

I wondered how such a prejudiced song could have become the anthem of ice cream and childhood summers. I learned that though Mr. Browne was fairly creative in his lyrics, the song's premise and its melody are nearly as old as America itself. As often happens with matters of race, something that is rather in origin is co-opted and sprinkled with malice along the way.

For his creation, Browne simply used the well-known melody of the early 19th-century song "Turkey in the Straw" which dates back to the even older and traditional British song "The (Old) Rose Tree." The tune was brought to America's colonies by Scots-Irish immigrants who settled along the Appalachian Trail and added lyrics that mirrored their new lifestyle.

Any sensible reader at this point is likely asking what the fuss is about. If someone were to write their own lyrics to the National Anthem about how Bill Zeiser is a talentless hack, it would not mean that every baseball game opens with a denunciation of Bill Zeiser. The racist version of the song was written over 100 years after "Turkey in the Straw" became well-known. And today, the tune is better known as "Do Your Ears Hang Low." It has been used in children's shows such as Barney, and the same tune has been used in Warner Brothers cartoons for years. It seems to be quite a stretch to link the ice cream jingle to racism.

But despite the common sense evidence that undermines his point, Johnson is not ready to let the tune off the hook:

The first and natural inclination, of course, is to assume that the ice cream truck song is simply paying homage to "Turkey in the Straw," but the melody reached the nation only after it was appropriated by traveling blackface minstrel shows. There is simply no divorcing the song from the dozens of decades it was almost exclusively used for coming up with new ways to ridicule, and profit from, black people.

He goes on to claim that 19th century minstrel tunes were played in ice cream parlors, and that "after World War II, the advent of the automobile and the ensuing sprawl required parlors to devise a way to take their products to customers. Ice cream trucks were the solution, and a music box was installed in them as a way to announce their presence in neighborhoods. Naturally, the traditional minstrel tunes of the previous century were employed to evoke the memorable parlor experience."

Johnson's article is interesting from a historical perspective, but he provides scant evidence for his central claim that the ice cream song is racist. Who alive in the post World War II era was brimming with nostalgia for 19th century ice cream parlors? I'd wager that most Americans in the 1940s were familiar with "Turkey in the Straw" or "Do Your Ears Hang Low," but had never heard of the racist version of the song that Johnson is intent on linking to the ice cream trucks. In fact, the link above to "Turkey in the Straw" is from an early 1940s film short.

Had Johnson interviewed a musicologist or otherwise produced evidence that the makers of ice cream trucks had racist intent, he would have been on to something. The most damning fact, which Johnson doesn't even directly highlight in his piece, is that the lyrics of the racist song refer to watermelon as "colored man's ice cream." However, that is nothing more than circumstantial. It has become a great American pass-time to hash and rehash the racist aspects of American history. If the racist version of the song was even half as influential as Johnson suggests, we would surely be aware of that today. Johnson closes his piece:

Whenever I hear the music now, the antique voice laughing about niggers and watermelon fills my head. I can live with this, but what's to be done on the summer day when my children's eyes light up at the far-off sound of the familiar melody, and they dash in a frenzy toward me for change? Do I empower them with the history of our country, or encourage the youthful exuberance induced by the ice cream truck? Is it my responsibility to foul the sweet taste of ice cream with their first taste of racism?

Or you could just act like any rational human being and take the situation for what it really is. Some guy that no one remembers today wrote a racist song using the tune of another song that was, and remains, much better known. Freud said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Well, sometimes a folk tune being played by an ice cream truck is just a folk tune being played by an ice cream truck.  There are plenty of opportunities to explore complex issues of race in society with your children, but buying an ice cream cone does not seem to be one of them.

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