No, NPR, The Ice Cream Truck Isn’t “Racist,” But I Know Why You Want Us To Think So

ice cream truck

“Racism! Come and get your delicious racism!”

I will not be surprised to see a formal course of study emerge in the near future in our institutions of higher learning, teaching the skills necessary to become a certified race-grievance manufacturer. One would be trained in such classes as Advanced Race-baiting, Historical Distortions, The Uses of Paranoia, and The  Permanent Victim Mindset, and a typical honors thesis would be exactly like the essay featured on NPR’s website, by Theodore Johnson III, but with footnotes. Come to think of it, maybe that’s where Johnson’s article did come from. If so, I’m sure he got an A.

And, as was the objective, other race-baiting lackeys, like RYOT’s Viola Knowles, picked up the baton by taking Johnson’s thesis to the next level, with her opus, “So It Turns Out Your Beloved Ice Cream Truck Is Actually Super Racist.” Like its origin, the piece is a lesson in confirmation bias and intellectually dishonest research. Also like the NPR piece—and tell me again why my tax dollars support an institution that encourages racial distrust—it is sinister in intent. “If you’d rather I not crush all of your beautiful childhood memories with ugly racism then you may want to leave now,” she begins ominously. For NPR has discovered that the jingle traditionally played by the friendly neighborhood ice cream truck—“or the racist truck,” she says, is “one of the most racist songs in America.”

Here, in brief is Johnson’s thesis—

  • In March 1916, Columbia Records released a song called “Nigger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” written by performer Harry C. Browne.
  • That song contains this exchange:

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!!”

  • Shortly after this time, the first ice cream trucks began appearing in America’s cities (NOTE:  Before this time, there were no trucks to carry ice cream or anything else)
  • Many of the trucks played jingles from popular songs of the day.
  • The tune of “Nigger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” was one of the jingles adopted, and has become the predominant  one used since.
  • Ergo, the ice cream truck, playing its racist song to this day, is racist.

Because, you see, Johnson deeply wants it to be.

The initial problem with his reasoning is that the ice cream truck doesn’t play a “song”—there are no lyrics. It plays a tune, and the tune is one that comes to us from European immigrants, and dates in this country from the early 19th Century. You know it, unless you are about 120 years old or Harry C. Browne, as “Turkey in the Straw,” one of America’s most persistent and popular folk melodies. The lyrics most commonly used with the tune, and the ones I learned, are these:

Turkey in the hay, in the hay, in the hay.
Turkey in the straw, in the straw, in the straw,
Pick up your fiddle and rosin your bow,
And put on a tune called Turkey in the Straw.

Nobody sings this song any more, and hasn’t for at least 75 years. It’s a tune, like “Greensleeves,”  and one that has invited lyrics, parody and otherwise for centuries. When someone under the age of 50 asks you what the tune is, because the schools and the culture have pretty much consigned America’s folk song past to the trash heap, you will answer “Turkey in the Straw,”  not  “Nigger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” So, in fact, would Johnson and Knowles, but never mind, they are dead certain that when today’s ice cream truck drivers enter our neighborhood, the intended message of the cheerful note sequence coming out of the loud speakers is racist.

Johnson acknowledges the tune’s origins, but rationalizes his alarming conclusion like this:

“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.”

Ah. That proves that the tune is racist, then, because minstrel shows, which were a predominant form of entertainment that nobody thought of as racist at the time, popularized an already iconic non-racist melody—a melody can’t be racist, or anything else, just as Wagner music is not itself anti-Semitic because it is associated with German and Hitler— that already had proven its ability as an ear-worm by crossing an ocean and hanging around for over a century.

Whatever musicologist who wrote the Wikipedia entry on the song informs us that the tune has had dozens of different lyrics through the centuries. The first published lyrics could be called an early equivalent of “Louie Louie,” being filled with incomprehensible gibberish like…

O ist old Suky blue skin, she is in lub wid me
I went the udder arter noon to take a dish ob tea;
What do you tink now, Suky hab for supper,
Why chicken foot an posum heel, widout any butter.
Did you eber see the wild goose, sailing on de ocean,
O de wild goose motion is a berry pretty notion;
Ebry time de wild goose, beckens to de swaller,
You hear him google google google google gollar.

No wonder we just remember the tune.

Other popular versions, we are told, included lyrics about the life and career of Andrew Jackson, such as the Battle of New Orleans and his successful campaign to destroy the Bank of the United States. Later there were  Mexican War lyrics and Civil War lyrics, obscene lyrics, nonsense lyrics, and lyrics about fishing. In 1928, the tune  was used as the base melody in the first Mickey Mouse cartoon “Steamboat Willie;” I’m pretty sure that’s where I first heard it. The melody is quoted in Second Symphony by that noted racist composer Charles Ives; it’s used in the song “Oklahoma Mixer” popular in Japan and other East Asian countries and is often played during gym classes.

So why isn’t the NPR article about the fascinating factoid that the ice cream truck is actually paying homage to Andrew Jackson? It doesn’t take that direction because that theory, though equally sensible as the one Johnson proposes, wouldn’t further the politically useful narrative that the United States is still racist to its core, that African-American are constantly under attack, and that even the most benign aspects of life and popular culture are secretly, maliciously, attempting to undermine black confidence and success by seeding messages of denigration and degradation.That is what Johnson has been taught to believe, and now he is spreading the word. It doesn’t dissuade him that in all likelihood, there isn’t anyone connected to the ice cream business that ever heard of “Nigger Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!,”  nor anyone anywhere, black or white,who thinks about it, its parody lyrics or racist imagery when they hear the tune, any more than they think about Andrew Jackson. NPR, however, wants to change that, because it is the political and ideological ally of those whose power and influence depend on preserving the belief that racism isn’t waning in The U.S., but vigorous and pervasive—why, even the ice cream truck is sending racist messages! No wonder the President can’t make any progress!

This is obvious, tortured, contrived pop-psychology junk. It is also irresponsible and wrong.  Occam’s Razor governs: the ice cream truck plays “Turkey In The Straw” because it is a cheery, recognizable, traditional American folk tune of long-standing. It wasn’t considered racist when it was first used by the trucks, and it absolutely isn’t racist today, long after anyone but government subsidized race-grievance manufacturers like Johnson know or care about an obscure use of the tune in a 1916 recording.

You know the next step, though, because it is so familiar. Some race-huckster like Al Sharpton—he was recently chosen to receive the “Man of the Year” award from the Los Angeles NAACP after they stripped Donald Sterling of the honor, which is so rich in hypocrisy and irony that it sets me into uncontrollable giggles—will seize on NPR’s piece, and organize a Good Humor boycott, and the weak and principle-free corporate executives will fold immediately, issue an apology, and change the tune played by the trucks to “We  Shall Overcome,” Kumbaya, or, better yet, “Accidental Racist” by LL Cool J and Brad Paisley. Then “Steamboat Willy” will be declared racist as well, and in a few years, another scholar will explain that Mickey Mouse’s origins were also secretly racist. Disney, “The House of Mouse,” as well as its movies, iconic characters and theme parks, are all just part of the continuing, oppressive, white conspiracy to oppress blacks. No, U.S. racism isn’t waning, not at all. We’re just beginning to recognize it!

This is despicable, and depressing.

I need some ice cream


Pointer: RYOT


Graphic: NPR

103 thoughts on “No, NPR, The Ice Cream Truck Isn’t “Racist,” But I Know Why You Want Us To Think So

  1. I have been offended by this song since summer camp 1971, when I realized that my ears, in fact, hang low.
    I am also offended by The Entertainer, You Are My Sunshine, It’s A Small World, and all the other catchy little ditties the ice cream truck plays while parked in front of my corner lot house. Location, location, location. Drives me bonkers.

    • Tex, you have hit on something!! Betcha bucks this is the next issue Al “Sharpshooter” Sharpton latches on to and forces an apology from Blue Bell for this obviously racist, political ice cream.

    • I rather think that NPR (and Sharpton) are the promoters of the “Great Divide”! Is anyone familiar with a 1950s song called, “If The Man In The Moon Was A Coon”?! Or a wildly racist Asian-disparaging ditty by The Five Keys (a black singing group) called “Ling Ting Tong”?

  2. Oh my God! I just had no idea that I was being subtly brainwashed into racist thinking by the tinkling of an ice cream truck! Clearly, back in the recesses of my brain, I somehow KNOW about the 1916 racist watermelon ditty (think “collective unconscious”), and the ice cream truck brings it all back. I am so afraid! What are these conservative/racist/sociopaths doing to me? Help! Keep those ice cream trucks away from me!

    Gee, Teddy boy, this is really, really scary, important stuff. Suggestion though: Find a new and/or more pertinent subject. Or better yet, get a different job.

    On the other hand, what is the “other side” doing to me? Brainwashing takes many forms… and we must be prey to those as well. Run! Run away!

    • We’re pretty safe from racism out in the country, because we never, ever see an ice cream truck out here. You’d think we have more ice cream with a triple-K farm and shooting range a couple farms away.
      Really though, if they are that offended by the obscure lyrics of a song no one knows any set of words for, just ask the ice cream company in a polite letter to switch to something like “Merry Go Round Broke Down.” A lot of jazz and pop music has offensive words today, and old songs are now offensive. Get over it, free speech includes people you don’t like. I’m getting more and more of the opinion that the Bill of rights needs to be obeyed, not shilly-shallied into a club.

      • In the era of Gated Communities, we are thankfully spared from the sound of Ice Cream Trucks, who must be considered part of all the riff-raff that Gated Communities are created to exclude. Perhaps the Ice Cream Truck Drivers should start a petition to be included in today’s protected enclaves, so we can all be exposed to the song’s racism? Equality for all!

      • Mr. Pilling;

        I was hoping (but not hopeful) that after the passage of ~ 5 weeks my comment had drifted off into irrelevance.

        I can only imagine what Paula Deen felt like after ~ 27 years.

        As far as my much-deserved punishment, it will have to wait. I’m currently being monitored for several well-intended yet irreverent remarks about the Madison (WI) White Privilege Conference.

        Seems I’ve violated someone’s ‘entitlement to serenity’ (H/T George Will) and “they” want me to ‘Check my Privilege.’ To that end, I am to be remanded to the PC/Diversity Gulag where an extensive reeducation program will get me thinking right.

        I always thought that if everyone’s thinking alike, no one’s thinking. That alone should be evidence that my treatment is far from over.

        • Yep. You’re a hard case duck hunter, all right! These days, you might just as well shoot Bucky Badger during the Ohio State game as go on campus saying something like, “Maybe the guy your city was named after had the right idea”. Madison used to be such a nice town, too!

        • Get you thinking “right”!? Wait, what? You still don’t get it!

          Perhaps a review of a recent installment of the cult classic Bevis and Butthead is in order. The episode in which their reaction to being informed of their previously unknown “white privilege” while attending higher education lecture is exposed in great yet disastrous detail. I would put the link here but I don’t know how to do that. Suffice it to say that the cartoon clip is so revelatory as to be entirely worth the effort it takes to look it up.
          But a cautionary note must be installed here: the Bevis and Butthead White Privilege Reaction revelation may become a counter reaction among a wide swath of run of the mill (as opposed to well- educated, sophisticated and au currant white people) thus sparking (triggering) an unintended negative reaction to being told, informed, or otherwise confirmed that white people do in fact possess privilege due simply to their whiteness.
          I’m just the messenger.

          • Sure. Also health privilege, IQ privilege, athletic ability privilege, talent privilege, ambition privilege, two-parent privilege, beauty privilege…there are an infinite number. You play the hand you are dealt honestly and the best you can, and pitching about anyone else’s hand is a mark of infancy and uselessness.

  3. There aren’t any ice cream trucks that cruise my townhouse community so they are largely a memory of the past for me. Hearing “It’s a small world” over and over again would be torture for me but I could hardly call it racist. In the surrounding city you are more likely to hear “La Cucaracha” which is a Mexican revolutionary song. The kids seem to like it anyway.

      • Oh that is rich! 🤣
        —No tienes que fumar!—
        Back in my distant memory I recall that I was not allowed to partake of the frozen delights that would come to my 1965 Portland Oregon neighborhood as we had 4 children of ice cream eating age, let us say, as we were 6, 5, 3, 2 , (and one other was a newborn)
        My mother did not have 4 dimes to spare every time the truck came by—which parked directly in front of our house. Mom did however make the best bread, the most delicious ginger snaps, and the best baloney sandwiches, all of which (and more) she seemed to have on hand at Ice Cream Truck Time, which was never scheduled but arrived sporadically throughout the summer. We just listened for the familiar and enticing “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush” (or was it “Lazy Mary Will You Get Up?”? The tune was the bell that rang making me hungry for whatever mom had already in the kitchen.

  4. Sarc alert! We should all do a daily self-humiliation for our unconscious yet somehow deliberate racism. Then after that recite a pledge of diversity with our hands on our genitals. This could be done on a voluntary basis…at first.

  5. When I read the title of your post I thought you were going to talk of the joke about men in white coats – incidentally learned from a friend of the disparaged race.

    Anyway, thanks for the lesson. Music and history are both interests of mine. And this post hits both.

  6. Well suppose this is disguised Turkish racism. After all, many of them are Moslems so the song is an insult to them, right? You never know about these things. It also might be a slap in the face to rednecks. Think about that one NPR!

  7. The original article was interesting, in a “knowing is half the battle”, sort of way. It doesn’t really recommend doing anything about the racist origins of the ice cream song (the ice cream trucks around my neighborhood always played Pop Goes the Weasel).

    But if the racist version is the one which popularized the tune in the ice cream trucks, isn’t that the version to go by? If someone plays the instrumental version of The Star Spangled Banner, we don’t normally attribute it to The Anacreontic Song instead. It’s an interesting historical artifact, like eeny-meeny, miney moe, but as the author of the original piece noted, most people are very much unaware of the racist origins, and it won’t stop him from buying ice cream from trucks that play it.

    So why the outrage? Even noting something has racist origins is forbidden knowledge now?

    • Because there are no “racist origins” to the ice cream truck, there are no racist origins to the tune itself, the premise of the article (that it would “destroy childhood memories” is stupid, and hence, there is little learned and no “battle.”

      • If the piece’s premise was that “hold onto your hats- one of the versions of a song that had a melody used by early iced cream trucks was horribly racist!”…well, that’s not really worth an article. Hence, the sensationalism.

        The only thing “learned” is that racist songs were popular 100 years ago. We already knew that.

    • There is absolutely no reason to conclude that the racist version prompted the ice cream truck’s use of the tune. The tune was already known and popular—that’s why it was used for the parody. So there are no “racist origins, any more than “Andrew Jackson origins”—except nobody makes money, gets speaking tours or MSNBC shows arguing that there is a plot to make Americans obsess about Andy. If someone wrote a racist version of the “Star Spangled Banner” that went viral on Youtube, would you then argue that all subsequent uses of the tune were racist? “Turkey in the Straw” was a well-known tune to children, with benign lyrics, long before the record in question. We don’t even have data about whether anyone bought the record. There wasn’t commercial radio then.

      It’s an absurd, misleading argument; a trumped up charge, and a really forced use of circumstantial evidence. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was originally about a black prostitute, but I’ve never heard anyone claim that contemporary use of the tune was obscene or racist. But that would be Johnson’s “logic,” and apparently, yours.

      • It’s an absurd, misleading argument; a trumped up charge, and a really forced use of circumstantial evidence. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was originally about a black prostitute, but I’ve never heard anyone claim that contemporary use of the tune was obscene or racist. But that would be Johnson’s “logic,” and apparently, yours.

        Based on his research, it does seem that the historical use of the song in ice cream trucks is from the racist version(s) of the tune, especially with the lyrics explicitly referring to ice cream. But perhaps not. It is interesting background nonetheless.

        I don’t think he is saying that contemporary use of the song is racist, his ending paragraph seems to point in the opposite direction in fact, just that the origins are based in a racist background. The same way I don’t think that some kids saying eeny-miney-moe to pick who is “it” are racist, but the poem has an undeniable racist background, I don’t think use of the ice cream tune is racist. To me, it is just an interesting historical note, a reminder that some of the most innocuous things in America are intertwined with a complicated racial history.

        As a side note, keep in mind that the writer of the piece, and the writer of the headline are rarely the same person. The headline tries to go for the most clickbait-worthy title, which often does not reflect accurately the tone or even the contents of the article.

        • You did note that the other piece, titled “So It Turns Out Your Beloved Ice Cream Truck Is Actually Super Racist” refers to the ice cream truck as “the racist truck,” right?

          • I didn’t read that one. But I did laugh at the image of an ice cream truck, brooding, a la Stephen King’s Christine, terrorizing neighborhoods and burning crosses on front lawns.

      • I’ve heard that little legend that the Yellow Rose of Texas was actually about a mulatto whore. Horse hockey. It was a nostalgic marching tune that was so popular during The War Between The States that it was sung by both sides. “I’ll pick my banjo gaily and sing those songs of yore/And the Yellow Rose of Texas, she’ll be mine forever more.” Does that sound like a poem to a prostitute? Not hardly.

        • I’m not sure your facts and the true one about the origins of “Yellow Rose’ are mutually exclusive at all. Another song sung during a war and popular with both sides was also about a prostitute: “Lilli Marlene.”

          • True. It was just a matter of the tune rather than the lyrics. However, the yellow rose is commonly found in Texas and just became a term for young Texan womanhood. Blondes, in particular! As with so many marching songs through the ages, it invoked an image of a lovely girl and a golden future to be won and protected.

  8. I think you about nailed it with this post, Jack. It almost—not quite, but almost—gets you off the hook with me after your recent outburst concerning Catholicism. In fact, if our paths ever cross, I’ll be sure and treat you to an ice cream.

  9. Umm… Jack? I hate to say this, but the NPR piece *doesn’t argue that*.

    What it does argue is that the piece has a racist *history*… which is, well, actually true. There’s enough pervasive racism in our history that just about everything has a good bit of blatant racism in its past.

    Now this obviously doesn’t hold for the RYOT piece, which also inaccurately represents the facts portrayed in the NPR article.

    • Sure it does. It argues, to begin with, that the use of a folk tune with so many lyrics that to assign any meaning to it at all is dishonest and unfair, was intended as a homage to to one racist parody–a contention for which he cites no support whatsoever, other than the fact that the song happened to be recorded shortly before ice cream trucks were mechanically feasible.

      He begins his examination with a false premise that fatally pollutes the whole: “I wondered how such a prejudiced song could have become the anthem of ice cream and childhood summers.” That answers the question before it is even asked. A “prejudiced song” is NOT such an “anthem.” 1) The theme of the trucks is a tune, not a song, and the TUNE, even he agrees, is “Turkey in the Straw.” 2. ANTHEM means a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause. Since the tune isn’t a song, the Watermelon song couldn’t be the anthem, because without those lyrics, it isn’t that song 3) And because it has no lyrics, it isn’t a song at all, so it can’t be an “anthem.” 4) To imply, as that sentence does, that the ice cream trucks are blaring out an anthem to racism is nonsense, bordering on libel. And yes, I do hold NPR to the standard of using words like “anthem” properly.

      • Umm… you’ll note that the next paragraph admits that the thought was over-simplistic. It’s the equivalent of “Or so I thought, but that was wrong. The Watermelon song was part of the history, but it’s more complicated than that.”

        It’s not the best piece, mind, in a variety of ways (“anthem” being just one)… but the problem you wrote this article about? That was the addition of RYOT’s summary, not part of the original, per se.

        • What? I don’t know how anyone can read it like that at all. He writes…

          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 (benign) 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 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.

          He certainly, in no way backs down from his initial statement, but thinks he is proving it. Except that 1) as I said, it’s no anthem 2) it’s no homage to anything. By saying that the use of the song isn’t a “Homage” to “Turkey,’ he suggests that it is, to the contrary, a homage to a racist song other than the benign tune, which it is not. 3)The melody “reached the nation” long before it became a minstrel show addition by his own description, and it was not “almost exclusively” used for ridicule, as I pointed out in the piece.

          His sloppy writing and/or his biased, intentional and unwarranted assumptions, implications and exaggerations, were the cause of the RYOT’s summary, which was worse than the original article, but exactly what was predictable from the way he wrote it.

          • His math is also faulty – “dozens of decades.” Does that mean 120 years, or 244? The author of the piece is sloppy, like you said, or disingenuous. I would say both.

          • The first bolded statement is accurate (the watermelon song is pretty damn racist), and it’s a legitimate thing to wonder under those circumstances.

            The second deals with the history of the watermelon song. Which, as I said, actually is pretty damn racist.

            The third is the most problematic, and potentially empirically questionable (it needs support — badly)… but still doesn’t call the song itself racist.

            In short? Yes, it’s incredibly sloppy. Yes, the RYOT interpretation was predictable based on how it was written.

            That doesn’t change the fact that your piece is about the RYOT summary rather than the issues in the NPR piece, or the fact that your entry misattributes their origin.

            • I reproduced that passage as a whole, and it is misleading in the extreme to treat it as separate and unconnected statements. As a whole, it does exactly what you seem to think, I don’t know why, it doesn’t do. It says that the TUNE intentionally evokes a racist anthem, which it does not prove at all, and that it pays homage to racism. That RYOT makes the reasonable next step of assuming that this means the ice cream trucks are themselves racist follows directly. You can’t seriously claim that the NPR piece suggests otherwise—yet you do.

              • I’m not treating the statements as separate and unconnected. I believed that you bolded them because you regarded them as the key points in the paragraph, the “smoking guns”, so to speak, and pointed out what they actually said — a belief furthered by your own discussion.

                On the other hand, the statements *DON’T*

                The overall structure, however, is narrative, not persuasive. It’s also sloppy, but that’s another matter entirely.

                The author not making an argument, per se, on a structural level at all — he’s telling a story. He also makes very few assertions about the piece in its modern use, the worst of which is about his own *emotional* reactions to it and how they’ve changed.

                And, as I’ve spelled out elsewhere in these comments, something having a history tainted/tarnished/influenced by racism (whichever adjective you want to pick) is hardly the same as that thing being racist. Should we regard the notion of the rule of law as such, for instance?

                Was it predictable that someone would draw the conclusions that the RYOT did? Sure, but that’s not entirely the NPR piece’s fault — and not what you say above.

                • Err… that should be “don’t function as such.” in the second paragraph.

                  *Sigh* Revision error, my eternal nemesis…

                • Again, I think this piece was properly—by me—taken in the context of NPR’s general agenda and orientation. The factoid that “Turkey in the Straw” was the basis of many racist, political or other versions is a legitimate, if trivial, topic. So is the larger topic of how many familiar tunes either originated as ethnically or racially derogatory songs, or later supported them: I have already mentioned in another post the case of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” But you can’t get away from the clear intent of these words, which I quoted,

                  “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.”

                  What’s the second inclination, Alexander? That’s the inclination that the RYOT piece stated as fact: that the ice cream truck was in truth paying homage to a racist recording from before WW I, which is utter bullshit, and classic whitey racebaiting.That “first inclination was and is 100% correct, and if so, no NPR story.

                  Why you are planting your flag in such quicksand is beyond me. It’s not even a close call—unless you can justify that sentence.

                  • The thing is, stating that you interpreted it “in the context of NPR’s general agenda and orientation” — and relied on such information for your interpretation — is admitting that your interpretation relies on confirmation bias. You saw the RYOT summary, went to the NPR piece primed to see a certain piece of reasoning, and “found” it.

                    I say that the assertion that the song is racist isn’t in the NPR piece because it objectively isn’t.

                    To properly understand that sentence, you need to understand that Turkey in the Straw — was popularized by blackface minstrel shows in the 1820s. That in and of itself is enough to give it a racist history.

                    A typical blackface “show” involved actors who wore black makeup to “appear” black and put on a comedic act which was allegedly part of authentic black/Negro culture, but in reality had around as much in common with the real Black culture of the time as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado had with real Japanese society. This has been pretty consistently condemned — rightfully — as mockery ever since Frederick Douglass (although, to be fair, it may just have been his dislike of minstrelsy in general in his case).

                    Thus, the ice cream truck can’t be simply playing homage to a purely innocent song — and blackface minstrelsy was still quite culturally relevant in the 1920s (although the blackface minstrels of the 1920s were far removed from those of the 1820s). Hell, such shows remained fairly common until well into the 1950s as part of Vaudeville and amateur performance.

                    In other words, the tune — and the song — had pretty strong racial associations and a history of being used in a racist manner from the very beginning.

                    Harry Burt, the founder of Good Humor, was born in 1875 and could hardly be unaware of this. This is enough to make the choice less than innocent by modern standards of racism and racial sensitivity… but, frankly, he was born in 1875 and died in 1926. Even disregarding the fact that the blatantly racist Watermelon version was released in 1916 (Good Humor’s history began in 1920), applying modern standards of conduct is hardly fair to him.

                    You’re ignoring what I said earlier: The overall structure of the NPR piece is narrative, not persuasive. It’s not arguing a point, per se — it’s telling a story.

                    His actual “thesis”, or “reasoning”, to the extent that his piece even has one, is:

                    1) When researching racial stereotypes, he came across the watermelon song, and was shocked to recognize the tune of the ice cream song.

                    2) This lead him to do extraordinarily cursory research of the history of the song and to find its racially-charged history.

                    3) The knowledge of said history has spoiled his enjoyment of the tune played by ice cream trucks.

                    To which I say: so what?

                    You want to know what the “second inclination” is? That sentence, in context, means: “The first inclination is to believe that the Good Humor tune is a simple tribute to Turkey in the Straw… but that melody and song was popularized as part of an extraordinarily racist form of ‘performance’.

                    If the author’s writing was less sloppy, he would have detailed just what blackface minstrelsy was and why this was a problem… but he didn’t. That’s just one part of my problem with it.

                    But the reasoning you outline above? That’s simply not in the NPR piece. That’s purely RYOT.

                    • Great brief, AC, and I see no holes to poke; I just don’t buy it, and the reason is simple: the NPR thesis, which you accept, is itself confirmation bias. “Turkey in the Straw” wasn’t popularized by minstrel shows, it was used by minstrel shows because it was already popular. It was going to be eternally popular whether those shows used it or not, as shown by the fact that it was employed as the basis for political, sexual and other parodies simultaneously. The non-racist versions were used, and common, and the tune without lyrics similarly. To conclude that any use of the tune, without lyrics, was necessarily or even probably a racist dog-whistle when a non-racist version, in fact many, co-existed at the same time the ice cream truck adopted it is itself confirmation bias by an author who buys the myth that racial animus is the central cultural force driving everything American. Its a presumption of guilt. It’s typical NPR slant. The RYOT piece took it a step farther, but NPR pointed the way, by tone and innuendo.

                    • 1) NPR wasn’t my only source on Turkey in the Straw being popularized by blackface minstrels.

                      2) The lyrics of Turkey in the Straw aren’t in and of themselves racist. They were simply used as parts of very racist performances, and popularized as such.

                      3) I’m not defending the NPR piece per se. There’s a lot wrong with it, as I’ve repeatedly noted and even commented on. Hell, I haven’t even said that it isn’t race-baiting (it certainly can be taken as such, but I’m more inclined to consider it sloppy scholarship). The problem is that what’s wrong with it isn’t what you note in your original post.

                      You don’t argue that it is deliberately written to imply something — which it may or may not be; I make no judgement on the author’s intentions — even though his piece never even makes the claim that the tune is racist or even a racist dog whistle, you argue that it’s the thesis of the piece and the conclusion of his reasoning. This is a fairly extraordinary claim, and requires a good bit of evidence — evidence which is lacking in the text.

                    • I think the intent of the piece is to suggest that the song was intentionally adopted to evoke racist attitudes. I don’t see how you can read it any other way.

                      The article also misleads on the topic of blackface, which was not considered as racist when it originated, and by the 20th Century, was just a performing genre that was not intended to convey racist animus, nor was the use of it a marker of racial animus by the performers who blacked-up (including, as you know, some great black performers.) In this regard, it was and is a bit like the Redskins controversy. In my theater company, I would have no problem putting a performer in blackface to perform a song traditionally done in blackface, like “Mammy.” So the suggestion that using a song sung in blackface makes tune racist or evocative of racist is, I think, sophistry and crap, and race-baiting crap, in this case, gently proposed. A tune is not poisoned because of the additional lyrics put to it, the context in which it was used on some occasions, or the make-up a singer was wearing when it was sung.

                      In “Holiday Inn,” songs by Irving Berlin, the resort run by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that opens only on holidays has a cringe-worthy number for Lincoln’s birthday called “Abraham,” sung by, among others, black performers and Bing, in blackface. Was it regarded as racist at the time? No. Was Bing showing anti-black sentiments? No. Was Irving, whose “God Bless America” is the anthem of 9-11? No.

                      Then about a decade later, the score and plot of Holiday Inn was re-purposed and mashed up to make “White Christmas.” By then, blackface was retroactively recognized as demeaning, and taboo. The Abraham song and make-up didn’t make it into “White Christmas,” but the tune did: “The Abraham Number,” as it is called without explanation, consists of a lively, sexy Vera Ellen production dance with the melody from the previous film.

                      By the logic of the NPR piece, the tune has a racial connotation, and by the logic of the follow-up piece, was chosen because of that connotation, . Those arguments, dumb and unfair as they are , would be even stronger in this case, since there had been no version of the song without a blackface connection.

                      I submit that an NPR writers saying “I will never be able to watch “White Christmas” again without thinking about how it is rooted in America’s racist past is a race-baiting idiot, and not someone trying to inform objectively.

                    • 1) The article wasn’t my source on the nature of blackface minstrelsy.

                      2) You will note that I made explicit comments about changes in the nature of blackface minstrel plays over time, as well as the time period of minstrel shows which popularized the song.

                      3) There’s very little to “buy” in my statements — I’m not talking about intent or implication. I’m largely talking about the writing of the article itself and your assertions in the entry above… and how they don’t align.

                      4) The article doesn’t even argue that the tune has racial connotations. It argues that it has a history of being used in racist ways. As I noted, this is actually true.

                      You can argue that the article implies such, sure… but that’s not what you’re saying in your initial post.

                      5) Blackface itself isn’t racist. It’s makeup. It’s no more inherently racist than mascara. I can think of a number of perfectly acceptable uses for it in theater and cinema, not to mention elsewhere.

                      It does, however, have a history of being used in racist ways. Whether they were considered racist at the time is irrelevant to whether or not they were racist.

                      The blackface minstrel shows of the 1820s were really, really racist. The post-Civil War shows were somewhat better, if still often based on racial mockery. This is beside the point.

                      6) If awareness of the history, which is fully of, well, people being people, keeps someone from enjoying the art of the past… well, that’s their problem. I would argue that awareness of the censorship issues and my distaste for attempts to whitewash history do more to keep me from enjoying Holiday Inn than the reminder of historical racism.

                      White Christmas? That’s another matter (words like “rehash” and “derivative” tend to pop up there).

                      The Abraham also isn’t the song (or set to the tune of the song) responsible for “Coon” becoming a pejorative for Blacks.

    • “There’s enough pervasive racism in our history that just about everything has a good bit of blatant racism in its past.”

      Just about everything has blatant racism in its past???

      Care to retract that hyperbolic false generalization?

      • Not really — it’s pretty thoroughly true. If you go back to 1950, racism was taken for granted and passe. If you go back a bit further, it just gets dramatically blatant.

        Statistics came about largely as a way to “measure” and “prove” White superiority (although that’s a bit of an oversimplification), for instance. Psychology and psychiatry? Look up the “protest psychosis” sometime, just for one example. The American government? Jim Crow, slavery, 3/5… and that’s without getting into other things, like differential enforcement of laws.

        We use common words with racist origins (“gypped”, “paddy wagon”), use nursery rhymes whose original versions were blatantly racist (it wasn’t a tiger in the original version of “eenie-meenie-miney-moe”)… the list goes on and on.

        If you look hard enough, you will find a connection to racism *somewhere*. It’s just that history is, well, _history_.

        • Sure. Almost all things were designed to push racist attitudes. Yup. Mmm hmm. Sure.

          Gads how did we ever manage to advance anything in life with this overt and unstoppable preoccupation with imparting racist ideology?

          I think there’s only one mindset preoccupied with race in this discussion…

          • I don’t know – have you ever seen trains? Those are pretty racist. As are socks. Oooh. We shouldn’t even go into the history of socks in the US. Super-racist.

            • Totally. When Benjamin Franklin designed the lightning rod he specifically included subtle anti-Negro detailing. A detailed reading of Edwin Hubble’s astronomy research reveal documents rife with subconscious dog whistles demonstrating that Chinese men are only useful for building railroads. America is just 100% racist. I don’t see how it isn’t obvious.

              • Finding racism in the history of just about any academic subject is trivial. You don’t need to make shit up.

                Case in point: Franklin signed off on the continued existence of slavery within the United States and even profited considerably from it (although he later turned abolitionist). Just where do you think the funds for his research were coming from? Hint: His lightning rod experiment was published in 1750; it was another ten-twenty years before he freed his own slaves.

                Hubble conducted his research in a period of Jim Crow laws and segregation. I’m pretty sure that even a cursory examination of his historical working environment would find plenty of examples.

                You’re missing the point.

          • Except I didn’t say that just about everything was designed to push racist attitudes. I said that just about everything had some degree of racism *in its history*. There’s a big, big difference there.

            As for Smarmos12’s sarcastic comment… trains are easy — just look at Segregation-era seating arrangements.

            Socks? Well, I could take the cheap route and point out the Red Sox’s historical racism (which is a stretch), the assorted messages that people have embroidered on the things, the historical employment patterns of clothing manufacture companies, or something else along those lines. Hell, I could even make a sarcastic comment about the fact that most racists wear them or point to the occasional parody (e.g.—the-creation-of-racism ).

            I could also point out the roles of both metaphorical and literal sock puppets in racist actions and plays (and several literal sock puppet plays *about* racism).

            But, well, those are just the obvious ones. Frankly, I’ve never really studied the history of socks, of all things, in depth. I’ll have to look a bit, when it’s not nearly three in the morning, and comment at another time.

            • Actually, there’s a very simple answer, now that I think about it — just take a look at the justifications that Europeans used to justify their treatment of native Americans. The differences in clothing were often cited as evidence of “savagery” and inferiority.

              • Umm… sorry to tell you this, but I’m not suspending false generalization as a fallacy. My point — made fairly explicitly — was that you can write a similar piece, tying its history to racist attitudes, on almost anything due to how pervasive various forms of racism have been through our societal attitudes and history. You don’t even have to go through a degrees-of-separation exercise to do it.

                This was in the context of “Yeah, that part’s true.” The logical sequelae is: “So what?”

        • The confusion is that the dawning that certain attitudes were racist arrived gradually. Someone who was taught and who sincerely believes based on what they have been taught that blacks are in fact biologically inferior and unequal, and who live in a culture that believes that, can only be judged racist in retrospect and from the outside, by outsiders. It’s like calling everyone who followed a deity before the birth of Jesus “anti-Christian.” There were “scientific” works aplenty in the 19th Century explaining the science of inferiority. I think it is profoundly misleading and unfair to say that everyone in the 18th Century was racist, or that they should be held accountable for those beliefs, which were largely unavoidable. It presupposes that racism, as an attitude we regard as inherently unethical and unjust, could be either in the absence of sufficient data and cultural support to persuade people otherwise.

          • Is it also safe to argue that a fair number of people who believed their own race to be biologically superior had never met, or at least interacted in a meaningful way, with anyone outside of their own race? Because that also has to be a huge factor.

            • It is, of course, THE factor. Sam Houston, who lived with Native American tribes for a while, has a terrific quote in which he said, as I recall it,that the only difference between Indians and blacks was how they had been treated, and that if the races’ experiences were reversed, whites would behave exactly the same as those races. He said he saw no differences in ability or character at all.

              • He hung out with a family of Cherokee up in Tennessee before coming here to rescue us from Santa Anna (or doing anything else, actually. He was 16 when he ran away from home). Oddly, that family owned black slaves. Virtually all of the Native American tribes kept slaves, either captured warriors or women taken in raids.

            • A fair number? Sure. Then again, look at… oh… the deep South in the slavery era, for one example.

              • No doubt, though it’s worth considering that, say, white subsistence farmers didn’t exactly have the leisure to meaningfully interact with the slaves down the road. (By the way, there’s your sock/racism connection: cotton.)

                Also worth looking at the rest of the world during that time, and during all time up to the 1950s, if that’s what’s under discussion. I could be misunderstanding the intended context, though.

                • To expand, if the whole context of my existence is to grow enough to feed my family, and I see that the rich people down the road who look like me have a bunch of people who don’t look like me do all the work for them, and I know pretty much nothing, except through neighborhood gossip, about who those people who don’t look like me are and where they came from, and I may even resent them a bit for being fed on a regular basis, it’s not like I have much motivation or time to walk over one evening and share a smoke with someone who doesn’t look like me and discover how similar we really are.

                  Which doesn’t absolve me of racism, per se, but at least of malicious intent and conception of what exactly I’m doing wrong. And I’m most of the population of the deep south during the slavery era.

                  • Except that history doesn’t support that narrative. The poor whites had considerable interaction with slaves (if not nearly as extensive as what the plantation owners had with their house slaves), and were often far more virulently racist than the rich.

                    As for the intended context, it’s quite simple: Just about everything in our history was in some way touched by racism and prejudice. Saying that something has ties to such attitudes is, accordingly, pretty much a triviality.

                    • Fair enough. I concede my ignorance on the first point.

                      Can we agree that ‘our’ history (and all history) is touched by just about every human flaw, though, which confirms your second point further? Not to downplay racism and prejudice, or distract from the subject at hand.

                    • History is indeed, for better or for worse, full of pretty much every aspect of human nature — the good, the bad, the sensical, the nonsensical, the healthy, the unhealthy, the common, and the bizarre.

                      Or, in other words… of course.

          • When did my comment even bring up holding past people accountable? Or, for that matter, state that *everyone* back then was racist?

            That said, no — racism refers to attitudes and beliefs which were, uhh, prominent back then. What you’re getting at is that we can only *condemn* them as outsiders, and lack an emic perspective on their views and actions. This makes them no less wrong… but, frankly, means that we lack the ability to fully perceive their actions in context.

            Saying otherwise gets into a historical version of moral relativism.

            What I *can* say is that ascribing blame and accountability to *individuals* operating within a toxic system gets into horrifically complex ethical analyses.

            Also, the “anti-Christian” analogy fails for a variety of reasons.

            • Yes, it makes the actions no less wrong. It makes the actors far less culpable, however, if culpable at all. If you have no way to know something is wrong, then you can’t be held accountable for doing wrong.

              You’ll have to tell me the reasons—recalling that the analogy regards holding people at fault for rejecting a proposition that has never been presented to them.

              • As I said, ascribing blame and accountability to individuals operating in a toxic system gets into horrifically complex ethical analyses.

                In general, mind, I believe that the people within a system, community, or society are responsible for the state and actions of said system, community, or society. Obviously, this responsibility isn’t evenly distributed (the authors of the Constitution, for instance, held greater responsibility for the continued existence of slavery in their new country than any of the impoverished and orphaned children who lived concurrently), but it’s still there, to the extent that people aided, through action and/or inaction, the continuance of toxic and/or harmful elements of the systems they were a part of.

                I also will point out that I don’t hold people responsible for rejecting a proposition that has never been presented to them. I hold them responsible for failing to reject propositions that were. I also hold them responsible for regularly compromising (and.or accepting the societal compromising) of fairly basic standards if principle on the basis of said propositions (equal protection under the law comes to mind, for instance, especially in the Jim Crow South).

  10. Our local ice cream truck plays the Popeye theme song, which I associate with the alternate lyrics some boys from fifth grade made up. The word “wiener” is included.

    Therefore the truck has been sexually harassing me and other neighborhood women for years. Most of these women don’t know they’re being victimized, but they are. We must stand together and speak up. If we succeed on a national press level, I could launch my writing career and cover my Ben and Jerry’s budget for the summer.

    I wonder how many children of good NPR followers will be banned from the ice cream truck this year, and how many will defy their parents. Make the alleged problem more innocuous, and that’s a screenplay Nickelodeon should jump all over.

  11. I wonder if Theodore Johnson III, Viola Knowles and Chris Hayes are quietly sobbing into their sweaters. Good grief. If the two articles weren’t idiotic enough, the comments following Johnson’s lamentations are even more nauseating (except for the Canadian guy who wrote “Being a Canadian, I’ve never heard such a tune come out our ice cream trucks. If I researched it, it’d probably be a song about respecting authority and saying sorry.”) This song is clearly yet another example of white privilege and micro aggression at work, with subtexts pushing a homophobia, xenophobic, Islamophobic, gender-phobic, racist-phobic, ethnicity-phobic, agenda seeking to subjugate minorities by the ruling white man-dominated social hierarchy. As a demonstration of my affinity for and solidarity with my historically oppressed minority brothers and sisters, I intend to rend my sweater each time it passes by my house until the tune is changed!!


  12. This tune was borrowed for a semi-popular rap song a few years ago. By Jibbs, who is an African-American artist. He must be a secret racist.

  13. When the Ice Cream truck came down our street back in the 50s all the white kids would rush up to the window and buy their special treat. All of the black kids would steal our bikes. Really.

  14. I was one of the first to leave a comment on this subject. But really, don’t you think you all are beating this thing to death? There are more important things to think/write about. Let it go! Every possible position has been expressed, and there are other posts that need commentary. Get off it; get your collective heads out of it, and/or find another way to spend your leisure time. Marshall has some important posts up; this one has been covered — more than necessary, I think. I’m not even reading the recent comments now… moronic to have more than 80 responses – back and forth, back and forth on this issue, when the message is pretty clear. Not to defend Marshall for putting up the post, but I think it’s probably a real waste of his time for you all to come up with comment after comment after comment to which he has to respond. Find something else. This one is well- (or should I say) over-covered.

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