In my opinion, popular culture (as in everyday culture) is often a good indicator of a cultural mainstream at a given time. Therefore, if we look at a seemingly banal or innocent artifacts, that may give us clues about the zeitgeist of a period. Theodore R. Johnson, III over at NPR thought so, too, and examined the origins of a famous ice cream truck song going back to the minstrel shows of the nineteenth century (go and read the article, it is great!). And he found a 1916 record by a Harry C. Browne, courtesy of Columbia records, that contains lyrics like this (warning: incredibly racist):
Browne: “You niggers quit throwin’ them bones and come down and get your ice cream!”
Black men (incredulously): “Ice Cream?!?”
Browne: “Yes, ice cream! Colored man’s ice cream: WATERMELON!!”
Almost a century later, such open forms of racism are quite shocking and thankfully would be unacceptable in mainstream advertising. That is not to say that popular culture today is free of racism. But I would argue that these days, for the most part, racism manifests itself in subtler forms. I am not talking about the realm of politics. There, as a regular observer, I note a lot of dogwhistling, especially since 2008 and the election of Barack Obama for POTUS. But that discussion is for another time.
While glancing over the Open Culture blog, a resource that I highly recommend, by the way, I once again found a little gem for everyone interested in American popular culture of the twentieth century. The Library of Congress now hosts the digitized audio tapes of Joe Smith, a former record industry executive and DJ who in the late 1980s interviewed many of the then most famous stars of Rock’n’Roll and other genres in American popular music. His collection of interview tapes encompasses “238 hours of interviews over two years.” At the time, excerpts of these were made into his book Off the Record (Warner Books, 1988).
Highlights from these interviews, according to the LoC, include:
- Bo Diddley talking about his own death
- Mickey Hart’s revealing story about his father
- Steven Tyler’s problems with drug addiction
- Peter Frampton’s short-lived popularity
- Bob Dylan’s surprising assessment of the turbulent ‘60s
- David Bowie’s description of Mick Jagger as conservative
- Paul McCartney’s frank admission of professional superiority
- Les Paul’s creation of an electric guitar in 1929
- Motown’s restrictive work environment
- Herb Jeffries’ and Dave Brubeck’s recollections of working in a racially segregated society
“Library of Congress Releases Audio Archive of Interviews with Rock ‘n’ Roll Icons.” (Kate Rix, Open Culture, 11/30/2012) – The article also goes into more detail about the musicians interviewed.