Author’s Note: having now completed the most taxing semester in memory, I openly acknowledge that I have been a blogging failure in recent months. I apologize, though it was due to circumstances largely beyond my control, and intend to restore the balance.—JB
Theodore R. Johnson offers a contribution to the National Public Radio blog, tracing the tune apparently played by many neighborhood ice cream trucks (not mine, as it happened) to an old racist song based on “Turkey in the Straw.” He acknowledges the musical relationship between the racist song in question (words by Harry C. Browne, the 1916 “N****r Love Watermelon! Ha! Ha! Ha!”—why, whoever could fail to fall in love with such a genial ditty?) and the earlier tune, in part mediated by the earlier racist contrafact on the same tune, “Zip Coon.” Aside from the relationship between the tunes, though, and a line from the introductory patter on the 1916 recording that calls watermelon “the colored people’s ice cream,” Mr. Johnson is a bit vague on the actual connection between racism and the dairy treat:
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.
And this is the story of why our beloved ice cream truck plays blackface minstrel music that sends kids dashing into homes in a Pavlovian frenzy searching for money to buy a Popsicle.
Methodologically, that assumption is a FAIL. The assertion “naturally, the traditional minstrel tunes of the previous century were employed” is based on…what, exactly? Just how “natural” would it have been to use songs of half a century and more ago, at precisely the time when America was inventing Youth Culture as both a discrete cultural force and targeted market? Johnson’s greater point is the dissonance he will feel, now and forever, when his children gleefully scamper after the ice cream truck when it plays this troubling (to him) tune. I understand the doubts, but I think they are unnecessary; as a relatively recent discovery of his, they are more of his own making than not, and I think there’s a better way both to think about and to deal with that kind of troubling cultural association.
When we lived in Oakland (1984–86), between my masters and doctoral degrees, I would take BART into San Francisco, every day, to accompany ballet classes at the San Francisco Ballet. I would either bus to the downtown station or walk to the Lake Merritt station, and thence to the City. One day, in Lake Merritt, I was whistling a bluegrass tune that I’d recently learned: “Golden Slippers.” No, I didn’t know that it had initially been a spiritual made famous by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, nor did I know that it had been given new text by (the African-American composer) James Bland and made into a popular minstrel song. All I knew was that, after learning it from hammered-dulcimer player Tony Elman’s “Shakin’ Down the Acorns” album, I couldn’t get it out of my head. So here I was, in a crowd of African-Americans, merrily and cluelessly whistling this minstrel song.
A gentleman with a very resonant whistle, walking the opposite way, picked it up from me, and until we were out of earshot we maintained a duet. I never so much as saw him, and I can’t say how I knew that he was an older man—something about the strength of the sound he made. There was just something avuncular about the “I’ll take that, young fellow!” way he picked it up.
The complications here are obvious: my unknowingly whistling this tune amidst a bunch of Black people, a Black man who knew the tune retrieving it from me and obviously enjoying it (gracious! was he a self-hater?), the survival of an old minstrel tune in the relatively starched bluegrass repertory, etc. In the moment, it felt like secret communication: “Yes, young man, you and I Get this tune. About the rest of these people, I don’t know—you and I understand and enjoy it, though.” A tune we both dug, period, trumped all other considerations.
Still, the complications of the pop-culture minstrel need little glossing. So when, in a world we hope is evolving away from that kind of thing, we are reminded of that aesthetic in a discomfiting way, how much self-consciousness and concern should we all feel?
I’m going to say: scant to none. Returning to “Turkey in the Straw,” I believe that we make a mistake when we accord sole cultural ownership of an old tune to the most recent person to (mis)use it. Mr. Johnson’s thoroughly American children, scampering out with their change on summer afternoons to chase the ice cream truck, are simply taking the old English tune, as legitimately American as anything in our received vernacular repertoire, back. Whatever words some schmuck racist put to it in the first part of the last century are a matter of cultural interest but no more. If an exorcism is needed, those troubled by the racist sideshow can learn the different, older words and hum them along until they’re the default, not the racist glop. (Much more innocently, I play this game with “The Star-Spangled Banner” sometimes, faux-ardently singing “Anachreon in Heaven.”) So the tune will be a part of the very sinews of these children, making them part of a two-hundred-year-old American tradition, and the other thing Johnson discovered in his researches will be little more than a footnote, which is necessary even though it’s more than it deserves.
I call this an unqualified win. Plus, it’s a great tune.