The music that filled the streets of my youth full of sticky sweetness has left a bad taste in my mouth today. Once I learned a little more about it anyway.
Depending on where you lived, you may or may not have had an ice cream van who made the rounds. When you heard the music it was a mad dash to get change from whatever adult was home and run. I have seen one again recently, but they didn't play the iconic tune I remembered so well.
If I hadn't heard it, I'm not sure I could have whistled it to you, but as soon as I heard, I'm able to confidently say that yes, that song did play out the speakers of my local ice cream van growing up. Does it have lyrics though? It must, but I couldn't have told you those either.
Before I go only further, I want to make sure I'm clear that not ALL ice cream trucks play that tune, but a lot of them sure do.
Here is what I learned yesterday while scrolling through Instagram. The ice cream truck song has some really racist roots.
You might be familiar with the sing-a-long version, 'Do Your Ears Hang Low'.
Do your ears hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie 'em in a knot?
Can you tie 'em in a bow?
Can you throw 'em o'er your shoulder
Like a continental soldier
Do your ears hang low?
That song was originally based on the tune "Turkey in the Straw". In the late 1820s and early 1830s, "Turkey in the Straw" was initially a popular tune for fiddle players. Later it was performed in minstrel shows by blackface actors and musicians. The lyrics in the initially recorded song was
Turkey in the hay, in the hay, in the hay.
Turkey in the straw, in the straw, in the straw,
Pick up your fiddle and rosin your bow,
And put on a tune called Turkey in the Straw.
Though initially, the song wasn't racist, the versions recorded later certainly were. Other than Barney and The Wiggles, the original version all but disappeared after the next version took hold.
Performed by the 2nd South Carolina String Band, Old Zip Coon is sung to the same tune as "Turkey in the Straw". While the term 'coon' has racist associations these days, back in the 1830s, it doesn't appear that the lyrics were meant to be racist. Old Zip Coon was a song sung in a minstrel show. Minstrel shows were popular before slavery was abolished. They are definitely considered racist now. The shows consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by mostly white people in make-up or blackface. So Old Zip Coon was one such character, played likely by a white man with painted blackface. The first performance, of 'Old Zip Coon' was by George Washington Dixon .
O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler,
Sings posum up a gum tree an coony in a holler,
possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump
That isn't the most racist connotation this tune carries though, the next one is actually the worst.
Named "Ni**** Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!", this is perhaps the worst version of the song.
The fact that the “Turkey in the Straw” melody was fitted out with so many racist lyrics is a sad and valuable historical lesson indeed. In fact, when Theodore Johnson III wrote an article about the discovery for NPR in 2014, he called this song "the most racist song title in America". You really can't argue about that one.
Performed by Old Dan Tucker in 1916, the record used to be on display in the National Museum of American History, though the website says it's not currently on view. This version of the song was released by Columbia Records and is written by actor Harry C. Browne.
Lyrics from this version follow a call-and-response performance.
Browne: You n*****s 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!
The lyrics only go downhill from there so I will spare you the read.
When ice cream trucks became popular in the 1950s they adopted the tune as one of their favorites, since the song strums up a lot of nostalgia. Other ice cream truck melodies include “ Camptown Races ,” “ Oh! Susanna ,” “ Jimmy Crack Corn ” and “ Dixie, ” which were all created as blackface minstrel songs.
While some of you may point out, that doesn't make ice cream trucks racist, you might want to consider that this might be exactly the point that many black people are trying to make. If even innocent things like the tune from the ice cream truck can be steeped in racism, maybe we should be asking ourselves what else is too.