Moochin Photoman

Ice Cream Van

An ice cream van in Belfast, a city with a complicated history, plays The Entertainer by Scott Joplin. Joplin was an African American the second of six kids born to an ex-slave father and a freeborn mother. Dad played the violin at plantation parties, Mom played the banjo, Scott got free piano lessons from a German Jewish music professor who saw his potential. After a musical career where he grew to be known as the King of Ragtime he died in a mental institution aged 48 after suffering dementia caused by syphilis. If all we knew him for today was that his  music formed the soundtrack to The Sting, and is played by ice cream vans, then that alone would be a cool legacy.

The ice cream trucks in Toronto, a city famed for inclusive multiculturalism, play a blackface minstrel song which has been referred to as one of the most racist songs in the history of American music. It was written by white American, Harry C. Browne. Browne was a Vaudeville banjo player, who made the transition to Broadway and later appeared in some notable silent films. During his youth he served in the Spanish American War. He was a Democrat, and after campaigning for them was offered a diplomatic gig, which he turned down in order to focus on his performing career. He ended up working as a radio announcer for CBS and died aged 76.

I don’t expect the kids in Toronto know the lyrics to Browne’s song, anymore than the kids in Belfast know that Joplin’s music won an Oscar for best score, decades after his death. They are there for the ice cream. History isn’t simple, good ice cream is.


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