It’s a song that’s as much a part of the summer as School’s Out and Summer in the City. It’s also unabashedly racist, according to National Public Radio.
The 1916 ditty written by Harry C. Browne is a familiar tune for anyone who ever stood outside an ice cream truck waiting for chilly relief. The words aren’t part of the summertime tradition. It’s the melody common to many ice cream trucks that comes to mind.
The song’s title and words, though, reflect a racial animosity that’s chilling to hear, writes Theodore R. Johnson, III:
“[N****] 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.
The song features a string of offensive references beyond the N-word including the racist word “coon.”
For his creation, Browne simply used the well-known melody of the early nineteenth-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.
Note: the audio clip below features the song’s offensive lyrics