New American songs 2014
This story may well sour any pleasant childhood memories of chasing after ice cream trucks in the summer. iStockphoto.com hide captiontoggle caption iStockphoto.com
This story may well sour any pleasant childhood memories of chasing after ice cream trucks in the summer.iStockphoto.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is about a virulently racist song. Read no further if you wish to avoid racist imagery and slurs.
"Nigger 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 came across this gem while researching racial stereotypes. I was a bit conflicted on whether the song warranted a listen. Admittedly, though, beneath my righteous indignation, I was rather curious about how century-old, overt racism sounded and slightly amused by the farcical title. When I started the song, the music that tumbled from the speakers was that of the ever-recognizable jingle of the ice cream 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 was forever ruined for me, especially once the chorus began:
Nigger love a watermelon ha ha, ha ha!
For here, they're made with a half a pound of co'l
There's nothing like a watermelon for a hungry coon
Origin Of The Song
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 vanilla 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 (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.
The "Zip Coon" was a blackface character who parodied a free black man attempting to conform to white high society. Library Of Congress hide captiontoggle caption Library Of Congress
The "Zip Coon" was a blackface character who parodied a free black man attempting to conform to white high society.Library Of Congress
Blackface Minstrels Steal The Show
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.