The Great Ice Cream Truck Music Controversy

May 17, 2019 by Michael Cordeiro

It’s no secret we live in a world where the “PC” culture runs amok. Everything is offensive. Everything “triggers” someone. Statues, flags and historical markers are being torn down and removed from public view at an alarming rate. Some for good reason and others for reasons a little more obscure. The music industry hasn’t been exempt from scrutiny either. There has been much debate lately over playing songs from artists like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly – not because they wrote songs that are particularly offensive or racist, but because of actions in their personal lives. Whether or not they’ve actually been convicted of a crime in a court of law has no bearing on the court of public opinion.

Here’s where things get weird: Recently, a controversy over ice cream truck music (which first flared up around 2014) has surfaced again. What could be more innocent than ice cream trucks? You hear that jingle and instantly think summer and comedy routines by Eddie Murphy (if you’re old enough). It’s hard to fathom that an ice cream truck jingle could be as offensive as some of today’s rap music. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen any twenty year old dudes rolling down the road in their souped-up Hondas blasting ice cream truck music instead of “Mo Bamba”. Apparently ice cream trucks and their jingles have a secret dark past going back over 100 years.

There are five common jingles used by ice cream trucks across America. The most common jingle originates from an Irish folk song that was rewritten around 1920 and titled “Turkey in The Straw”. This version did not contain racist or offensive lyrics, however it was rewritten again and titled “N****s Love a Watermelon” (not cool). This was part of a series of rag time songs written and performed by black face artists. By the 1930s, black face style music had died out. These tunes were largely forgotten until the early 1950s when ice cream trucks first started patrolling neighborhoods looking for groups of kids eager for cold summer refreshment. The truck owners needed a hook to draw in the crowds and sell their quickly melting inventory. They wanted something reminiscent of the old turn of the century ice cream parlors.

Someone had the bright idea of taking the old ragtime tunes and using the melodies. Remember this was still pre-civil rights era and the public mentality was totally different. Jump ahead fifty plus years to today and I bet the vast majority of people could not name the tunes or tell the history of ice cream truck music. I had no idea until I did some research. I just wasn’t raised to equate that music with anything other than a toasted almond bar or ice cream cookie sandwich. Those sounds just meant fun and friends, not racism. Collectively, I believe our society is suffering from permanent brain freeze!

Historically, our country has failed miserably when it comes to equality. Our forefathers should have outlawed slavery from day one and insured that every person coming here was guaranteed the same rights. I agree that certain statues and flags are blatant reminders of our mistakes and stand as symbols of repression. They belong in a museum and not in front of a state capitol. Where do we draw the line though?

What doesn’t seem to balance out in this equation is that a melody from more than a century ago that no one remembers the title to is suddenly offensive, but no one is speaking out against the vulgarity of today’s rap music aimed at our youth. You can’t have it both ways. What’s next on the chopping block, calliope music on carousels? Meanwhile, I just found out that the ice cream truck in my neighborhood changed their tune to “Helter Skelter”.

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