I recently wrote my first article for NPR’s Code Switch blog. In it, I talk about the history of one of the famous tunes played by the ice cream truck, alternatively known as “Turkey in the Straw,” “Zip Coon,” and “Nigger Love a Watermelon.”
The last two are as racist as they sound: Yes, THAT “coon,” and THAT stereotype with THAT word.
The use of blackface minstrel music is not confined to just that song. “Camptown Races,” “Oh Susanna,” and “Jimmy Crack Corn” are all ice cream truck songs and owe their existence to the blackface minstrel shows.
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 vanilla 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.
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.