You can guess you’re on the NPR website – and the “Code Switch” race-matters blog – when an article on ice-cream trucks comes with an editor’s warning: “This article is about a virulently racist song. Read no further if you wish to avoid racist imagery and slurs.”
Some trucks apparently play the well-known melody “Turkey In the Straw,” and Theodore R. Johnson III blamed "a great many" ice cream trucks for playing a melody apparently popularized by a blackface song named “Zip Coon” and a horrid 1916 ditty titled “"Ni--er Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Johnson claimed unscientifically that "not all ice cream trucks play this same song, but a great many of them do." He certainly couldn’t enjoy the ice cream:
I wondered how such a prejudiced song could have become the anthem of ice cream and childhood summers. I learned that though Mr. [Harry] 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 in origin is co-opted 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 Ole 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.
In today’s politically correct world, ice cream trucks would surely switch to something more modern, like Katy Perry singing about melting your popsicle. At least Johnson didn't let the concept ruin the children's treat: "The sight of my children enjoying a Good Humor ice cream bar will fight back the racist song that lampooned black people who happened to be in good humor. The delivery of the cold hard truth can wait until another day."