Ice cream song has its roots in racism

The ice cream truck made its first appearance in my Woodbury neighborhood last week. It didn’t take long to recoil from its “fingernails on a chalkboard” signature song: “Turkey in the Straw.”

It’s going to be even worse now that NPR’s Code Switch blog has revealed the racist roots of the song. It’s not about turkey or straw.

Writer Theodore R. Johnson III writes the song made its crossover to ice cream because ice cream parlors played minstrel music.

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 the late 1820s, the music was given new lyrics that dripped with racism and titled “Zip Coon.” The blackface character of the same name parodied a free black man attempting to conform to white high society by dressing in fine clothes and using big words. Fifty years later in postbellum America, the character became an archetype of the black urbanite and propelled minstrel shows to the height of their popularity. Zip Coon was the city slicker counterpart to the dimwitted, rural blackface character whose name became infamous in 20th century America — Jim Crow. These two characters would often interact on stage and were the inspiration for the hugely successful Amos ‘n’ Andy act decades later.

Johnson says he favors a dilemma this summer when the ice cream truck approaches, playing a song about black people and watermelon, and his kids want money for a treat.

“Do I empower them with the history of our country or encourage the youthful exuberance induced by the ice cream truck? Is it my responsibility to foul the sweet taste of ice cream with their first taste of racism?” he asks.