One of summer’s most familiar sounds is an ice-cream truck’s jingle drifting up suburban streets and down city blocks.
The problem with that snapshot of Americana is that the tune, the song “Turkey in the Straw,” has been called out as racist in online forums and articles on sites such as Upworthy and NPR’s Code Switch.
Unilever’s Good Humor brand wants to remove this fragment of the past as it celebrates its own history.
For the brand’s 100th anniversary, Good Humor and PR agency Edelman are targeting ice-cream-truck drivers, asking them to replace the old jingle with “It’s Good,” a composition created by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. The new track will be offered free to drivers.
The drivers, most of whom are independent operators, can download the jingle from Good Humor’s website. The brand is also working with Nichols Electronics, the Minneapolis company that makes ice-cream truck music boxes, to pre-install the new option.
To hasten the change, Good Humor and Edelman are offering educational programming to both teach drivers how to update the soundtrack and explain why it’s important that they do so.
Good Humor is also planning a paid YouTube push and radio buys in New York and Los Angeles to publicize the jingle and its purpose.
“Even though the brand has not owned ice-cream trucks since 1976, we wanted to be part of the solution and offer ice-cream truck drivers a jingle that can bring joy to every community,” explained Russel Lilly, senior director of U.S. ice cream at Unilever, in a statement.
In the U.S., “Turkey in the Straw” seemed to start out innocently enough as a song about life on the farm, using the melody of the Irish ballad, “The Old Rose Tree.”
By the 1830s, more derogatory lyrics emerged, along with minstrel show performers, that painted dismissive portrayals of Black Americans. By 1930, the song hit peak racism, with lyrics that are shocking to hear today. Through time, the farmyard version of the song remained, performed on children’s shows, such as “Barney & Friends” and “The Wiggles,” even as the antebellum and Jim Crow-era versions echoed from the past.
As RZA noted in a short promotional video for “It’s Good,” “Remember that ice cream jingle? Of course, we all know it. I’m not going to play it right now, though, because we’ve come to find out it has racist roots.” He explains that Good Humor approached him to create a new song and to “change the dynamics and make a new ice cream jingle for a new era.”