Can ice cream be racist? The question has lately caused a small dustup—and, as you might imagine, the issue is larger than ice cream. It is, in fact, indicative of a certain psychic roadblock in enlightened black thought of late.
It started with Theodore R. Johnson III, writing on NPR’s blog to tell us that when we hear an ice cream truck play “Turkey in the Straw,” we must understand that the tune has racist origins. Johnson points out that when ice cream trucks started playing the tune in the 1920s, it was not long after the tune had been tricked out repeatedly with racist lyrics—including a minstrel-show perennial called “Zip Coon,” not to mention an awful pre-World War I version he unearthed with the lyric “Nigger Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.” Furthermore, because ice cream parlors played minstrel songs in the nineteenth century, people in the 1920s and 1930s would have associated “Turkey in the Straw” with its unsavory alternate versions. In response to Johnson, I wrote that by the time those trucks existed, people thought of the tune as simply “Turkey in the Straw,” a song about the farm. No evidence exists that ice cream parlors were ever sites uniquely associated with racist music.
Johnson answered my reply, and it is here that we encounter the psychic roadblock I referred to above. For Johnson, the main thing is that somehow, some way, we must “acknowledge” the racist history of that ice cream jingle—even if it requires bending over backward regarding the facts. For example, he has managed to find—and I am sincerely in awe of the effort—a sheet music edition of “Turkey in the Straw” with a “Negro” caricature on the cover. But this sheet was labelled as a “Ragtime Fantasy”—that is, it was an example of a fashion in pop during the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century of arranging preexisting tunes of all genres in a ragtime style. Indeed, ragtime itself was associated with black people, but this “ragging” genre was applied to all and sundry. The sheet-music edition reveals “Turkey in the Straw” as a “minstrel” tune about as much as the 1970s’ “A Fifth of Beethoven” reveals Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a disco song.
In response to my observation that “Turkey in the Straw” was associated with farm animals in the pop culture of the time (such as Looney Tunes), Johnson notes that some Looney Tunes reveled in minstrelly caricature. Most of us knew that already (and I have written about the Looney Tunes known to addicts as “The Censored Eleven”). Old movies were full of racist material, but we don’t therefore decide that any song Max Steiner or Alfred Newman played on a soundtrack was, by association, “minstrel.” As for ice cream parlors specializing in minstrel songs, Johnson notes that these establishments used a music box that played not just minstrel tunes, but also waltzes, “fiddle tunes,” and the like—the pop music of the day, in other words. Those music boxes were common inside many other establishments of the day; the notion that an aging gent in 1932 would hear a minstrel tune and think especially of ice cream makes no sense.
It’s revealing that Johnson is so deeply committed to showing that there is something racist about ice cream jingles—it tips us off that Johnson is ultimately talking about something much bigger than ice cream. His intent becomes clear in his final observation—that ice cream trucks have played other tunes with minstrel histories, such as the Stephen Foster chestnuts “Oh, Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” No doubt, those tunes were racist in their original incarnations, with their dusting of “Negro” dialect and more (some of the lyrics to “Oh Susanna,” now unsung, show how sick America was at the time). But those songs were written back in the Gilded Age. As time passed, they seeped into America’s pop fabric as faceless little ditties. Almost no one learning “Camptown Races” (doo da, doo da) at camp, or while taking elementary piano lessons, has any idea that the song began as a black-oriented tune.
Meanings morph over time; eventually, origins become footnotes. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” originally referred, sub rosa, to mocking the idea that a black bandleader would have a highfalutin name like Alexander. Or, think of what the expression “that sucks” really means—and note that, today, we never do.
Read the whole thing, it's worth it...