The Most Racist Song in American History

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I grew up listening to this song and no doubt you did as well. When I heard it, great joy would swell up within me and I would come running to its siren call. If you were a kid in the 1970’s – 19990’s (and even now, in some places) this music had you begging your parents for money to buy Ice Cream from the Ice Cream man. Check out the video below to hear the tune I am speaking of.

Now “Turkey in the Straw” sounds innocent enough especially when you consider the first verse of the song which goes like this…

Turkey in the straw — Ha ha ha
Turkey in the hay — Hey hey hey
The Reubens are dancing to Turkey in the Straw
Hey highdy heydy, and a haw haw haw

So why is this racist? Well, someone took the tune of that song and added new lyrics to it and the song became a big hit for him and Columbia Records who published it in 1916. Can you guess the name of the song?

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Black History Quiz Answer

The remix of “Turkey In the Straw” was called “Nig*er love a Watermelon, Ha! Ha! Ha!” Listen to this discussion about it on the Hot97 Morning Show below. (Video below.)

So, what’s the story behind this? Well, according to Wikipedia. Harry C. Browne (August 18, 1878 – November 15, 1954) was an American banjo player and Racist actor. He appeared on stage and in silent films and recorded for Columbia Records in the 1910s and 1920s.

Browne was born in 1878 in North Adams, Massachusetts. Before his acting career, he served in the Second Massachusetts U.S. Volunteers during the Spanish–American War and had a brief career campaigning for the Democratic Party. In fact, William Jennings Bryan, then the Secretary of State, offered Browne a diplomatic position in February 1914 but the latter declined. Browne later worked for a stock company as an actor, casting him in plays such as Arizona and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in the early 1900s.

A skilled banjo player, Browne performed in vaudeville for seven years before recording a series of songs for Columbia Records, starting in 1916. His first record, perhaps his most well-known, is a re-interpretation of the American folk song “Turkey in the Straw”. Released in March 1916, Browne appropriated the standard as a coon song re-titled “Nig*er Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!”. It is commonly referred to as one of the most racist songs in American music: the song relied heavily on the watermelon stereotype, a belief popularized in the 19th century that African-Americans had an unusual appetite for watermelons. For the B-side, Browne chose to record the minstrel show favorite “Old Dan Tucker”, marking the tune’s first commercial appearance on a major label.

So, does this mean that Ice Cream Truck drivers are all racists? No. Actually, there is a compelling argument from The New Republic against this music used by Ice Cream trucks is racist at all. In a nutshell, a few quotes from their argument:

  • “… it sound like the “Turkey in the Straw” version vanished in the wake of the racist ones, but it always existed alongside and has outlived them. All evidence points to “Turkey in the Straw” being what the ice cream companies intended. In pop culture of the early twentieth century, that tune is eternally associated with either its inoffensive, nonsensical lyrics or, when performed instrumentally, with farm animals and rural settings. For example, the man who scored Looney Tunes, Carl Stalling, used “Turkey in the Straw” constantly in scenes on farms and especially with chickens and the like.“
  • “Johnson’s unearthing of the “Nigger Love a Watermelon” song is invaluable as history, but the likelihood that this is what the trucks were playing is negligible. The tune has been set to innumerable verses of various kinds, and this “Watermelon” rendition was, in the grand scheme of things, one of the vast majority of pop songs that comes and goes in a flash. That’s why it’s a rare archival find and historical footnote today.” 
  • “Was it really a custom for ice cream parlors to have someone sitting at the piano singing in black dialect about “darkies” eating watermelon and having razor fights? Let’s allow it could have been the custom at one of them somewhere—or just perhaps it was a rather obsessive quirk in some small town. But across this vast nation as a whole, was it ordinary to receive your banana split while being regaled with an endless succession of songs about coons and the ol’ plantation? And why in ice cream parlors, but not shoe stores or barbershops?”

My opinion is this…

Harry Browne’s remix of “Turkey in the Straw” is racist, pure and simple. It makes me think of how Big Al Yankovich would remake hit songs and people would sing them as much, if not more, than the original ones. Who remembers when he remade Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” song into “Eat it” and more recently, “White and Nerdy?” It did not replace the original songs he lampooned, it co-existed with them. I think Harry Browne’s racist version of the song is in the same vein.

I also find it unlikely that ice cream truck companies play this song with racist intent as the culture of ice cream parlors does not align with songs of the racist south. I also think that if such was the case, it would have been cancelled back in 2014 when this controversy was originally addressed.

So, is “Nig*er love a Watermelon, Ha! Ha! Ha!” the most racist song in America. Yes, it gets my vote. Are Ice Cream Trucks blasting it in our neighborhoods to promote racism? No. That being said, it may be best for Ice Cream trucks to switch song selection in these days of Cancel Culture and easily triggered crowds. Just my two cents of advice.

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