Your Neighborhood Ice Cream Truck Is Playing a Racist Minstrel Song


Bad news, my sweet summer children: The ice cream truck is racist.

There’s always been something a little sinister, conceptually, about the “ice cream man”—he’s a man who drives around in a van full of ice cream, playing a tinkly song that lures children like tiny sugar-zombies. (NOT THAT I WOULD TURN DOWN A ROCKET POP RIGHT NOW, IF ANYONE’S IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.) But, as it turns out, there’s a more concrete, historical dark side to your friendly neighborhood Flintstone’s Push-Up pusher.

Theodore R. Johnson III at Code Switch got curious about the origins of the ubiquitous “ice cream man song,” and what he uncovered is a sobering reminder of how racism is woven into even the most seemingly innocuous corners of American culture. I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in mine the ice cream truck soundtrack alternates between Scott Joplin’s piano-recital staple “The Entertainer” and what I always assumed was a rendition of “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” which seems to be a lyrical variation on “Turkey in the Straw.” But “Turkey in the Straw,” isn’t just some harmless old-timey folk song. Its popularity and ubiquity are inextricable from our country’s history of racist minstrelsy.

Via NPR:

“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.
…As quickly as it began, the music paused, and this call-and-response ensued:
Browne: “You niggers quit throwin’ them bones and come down and get your ice cream!”
Black men (incredulously): “Ice Cream?!?”
Browne: “Yes, ice cream! Colored man’s ice cream: WATERMELON!!”
…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.

Now, I have no idea whether or not Browne’s racist reworking of “Turkey in the Straw” developed, directly, into the “ice cream man song.” But it is a historical fact that the melody—under the title “Zip Coon“—was popularized by blackface minstrel shows. And, I mean, Browne’s version LITERALLY SAYS “COME GET YOUR ICE CREAM.” The turkey version is about a fucking turkey (also, that version seems to be racist anyway), and the older versions are either a British song about a tree or an Irish ballad about your grandma. So. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to draw a connection between the racist version about ice cream that was played in ice cream parlors (more on that in a second) and the trucks that drive around selling ice cream.

But, regardless, the broader point here is that we wouldn’t even remember that melody, in 2014, if it weren’t for racism. As Johnson explains:

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.
…The ice cream crossover happened concurrently: 19th century ice cream parlors played the popular minstrel songs of the day. 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.

I think issues like this are confusing for some (white) people to digest—”Oh, so we can’t have ice cream anymore!? So ice cream is racist now!?!?”—so, in the service of productive discourse, let’s look at this another way. Yes, you may still have ice cream. No, ice cream is not racist. No, Big Ice Cream is probably not going to take steps to change their iconic van jingle. Yes, this is still worth talking about. Conversations like this are important because they illuminate the myriad ways, overt and covert, that racism is built into American culture.

Sure, you can say, “It’s just a stupid ice cream song—quit overreacting.” But that’s exactly the fucking point. It’s the most benign, neutral thing I can think of. And this is part of its history (not even buried particularly deep):

In a country where white people have the fucking gall to declare racism “over,” when it’s still glaringly present in everything from our prison system down to our ice cream trucks, yes. I’m comfortable saying that every hidden vestige of bigotry is important to uncover.

Imagine, white people, that that song was talking about you. You personally. Imagine that your name was Mark Fairsley and that an alternate title for the ice cream man song was “Turkey in the Hay and Mark Fairsley’s a Sex Predator.” Imagine that it took about six seconds of Googling for anyone in the world to pull that info up.

Now imagine that any time you mentioned it—even just to say, “Wait, why does the ice cream man have to use that song again?”—people told you, “Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s just an ice cream song! Gahd, Mark, stop being so sensitive!”

And imagine you had trouble getting a job because of it. And these messages about you permeated your neighborhood, your town, your city: Mark Fairsley’s kinda scary. Mark Fairsley complains too much. Mark Fairsley wants a hand-out. And then imagine you go to work and you get paid 1/6 as much as everyone else. And they’re still like “Naaahhhh! It’s not because we don’t like you! Lighten up—it’s JUST A SONG!”

Now multiply that by about 400 years and 4o million people.

There are so many other songs in the world. I remember once, when I was in 1st grade, my piano teacher sent me home with an assignment to learn “Dixie,” the Confederate anthem and also a historical minstrel song. “Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton/Old times there are not forgotten.” It was just the next song in my beginning piano book—it didn’t say anything about the Confederacy, specifically—I had no idea where that song came from and what it meant. But my dad called her up and said, “Nope. She’s not playing that.” It was probably awkward for him. I probably whined, because I remember that it was a fun song to play. But THAT’S how much energy it took to fix that problem, to not perpetuate the idea that that song is acceptable (within our family, at least). And then it was done.

Yeah, it would take a little bit of energy for the culture at large to stop pretending like this song is innocuous and, eventually, to stop using it. But how much energy does it take for black people to perpetually ignore and cope with dehumanizing shit like this? Why is that expenditure their responsibility, but changing “just a stupid ice cream song” is too much for white people to possibly endure?

Get your shit together. It’s just ice cream.

Image by Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock.

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