One of America's great pastimes—chasing after the ice cream truck as a kid while it rolled down your block, after which you'd devour each scoop with friends on a hot summer day—may not be as innocent as you remember. NPR recently unearthed troubling news about the beloved jingle that blares from ice cream trucks all across America.
The tune that defined many a childhood summer, Theodore R. Johnson writes, was popularized through a century of blackface minstrelsy, peaking with a version written by Harry C. Browne in 1916 and released on Columbia Records, under the title "Nigger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Johnson details the origin of the record:
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.
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.
Let's just call a spade a spade: the song itself is disgustingly racist, and includes lines like, "Yes, ice cream! Colored man's ice cream: Watermelon" and "There's nothing like a watermelon for a hungry coon."
Browne's song descended from a long line of blackface-era music that used the tune. Almost 100 years prior to the Columbia Records release, it was a hit under the name "Zip Coon" (which was later adapted as the sonic framework for "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah"). Browne drew on that melody to craft his own track. That "Nigger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!" became a sensation is not entirely surprising when you consider America's deep embrace of slavery, segregation, and the idea of The Black Man as Commodity throughout history.
I've written this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: the story of black bodies in a white world is long and complicated, and to even try to understand America's ugly calculus in this post would be too monumental a task. Race, and its relationship to the American fabric, is a complex thing, and as Johnson writes, "it's not new knowledge that matters of race permeate the depths of our history and infiltrate the most innocent of experiences, even the simple pleasure of ice cream."
So, what did we learn today? It's still OK to eat ice cream. It's not OK to be a racist.