When I heard this song I was PISSED! Admittedly, though, beneath my righteous indignation, I was rather curious about how this century-old, overt racist song came to be. When I started the song, the music that tumbled from the speakers was that of the ever-recognizable jingle of.....the icecream truck. (For the record, not all ice cream trucks play this same song, but a great many of them do.)
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!!"
My mouth dropped. The music immediately resumed and so did the racism. I soon realized that the ice cream truck song would be forever ruined for me, especially once the chorus began:
"N-word love a watermelon ha ha, ha ha!
N-word 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
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 plain in origin is adapted 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.