Ice Cream Trucks Bring Racism to America

A story on NPR this week tells us that a song commonly used as the siren call for ice cream trucks combing through suburbia  was released in 1916 under the title, “N***** Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.”

Shock! Horror! And interesting to note, as the author of the piece does, that minstrel music was the original soundtrack for ice cream parlors. The tunes made the leap to ice cream trucks out of tradition.

Since it’s been a while since I traded CD’s with Donald Sterling, I didn’t recognize the song.  How did they find this vile ditty and put it in an ice cream truck?

For his creation, [Songwriter Harry] 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.

Well, now wait a second.

Turkey in the Straw” is a pretty common tune. It’s programmed into many of the electronic toys my daughters have played with in infancy and toddlerhood – maybe not as ubiquitous as the ABC’s, but in the mix with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Good Humor and Fisher Price probably use the song for the same reason: since it’s in the public domain, there are no copyright fees.

But author Theodore Johnson brings up the interesting point that the tune gained popularity through minstrel songs. Does the song’s significance really go beyond interesting history?

There are probably thousands of songs lost to the ages, so why does “Turkey in the Straw” still get played today? Is it lingering racism? Or is it just a bouncy, free tune whose origins are largely forgotten?

I’ll go with the latter. Otherwise, we have some problems with Steamboat Willie.

 

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