The song is a ubiquitous sign of a summer – the chiming incantation that calls like the Pied Piper, sending kids scrambling to the streets for a frozen treat. However, it turns out that the traditional ice cream truck jingle has a dubious past that has recently been unearthed.
Yesterday NPR’s Theodore R. Johnson published a report linking the song that many associate with ice cream trucks to the race-mocking minstrel song “N***** Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” by Harry C. Browne. The song, released in 1916 by Columbia Records, not only clearly contains racial slurs, but plays on African American stereotypes which are offensive and culturally integrated. It begins with the following exchange:
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!!”
Then, in comes the nasty refrain:
N***** love a watermelon ha ha, ha ha!
For here, they’re made with a half a pound of co’l
There’s nothing like a watermelon for a hungry coon.
You can click here to hear an original recording of the bigoted jingle.
Though Johnson notes that “N***** Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” is a take on “Turkey in the Straw,” which is, in its own right, a take on “The (Old) Rose Tree,” it was minstrel shows that originally popularized and spread the song – thus the shocking intro, which was what undoubtedly tied the tune to ice cream in the first place. Johnson goes deeper into the move from parlor to truck in his piece, but suffice it to say that “N***** Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” is a piece of dark Americana that has somehow seeped in under the radar and become a symbol of childhood joy.
Well, at least we figured out that the term “jimmies” wasn’t racist.