On a visit to New York a few years ago I bought a second-hand record, the single Watermelon Man by Gloria Lynne, the original 45 from 1965. At that time I didn’t know anything about her, but I did know the tune. It was Herbie Hancock’s famous jazz instrumental; Gloria Lynne had written lyrics for it. At home I gave it a spin and I liked it from the start: a beautifully sung jazz tune, tightly arranged by the great Al Cohn. The occasional pop and crackle and the fact that it is a mono record only add to its charm. In fact, I’ve listened to it quite a few times since.
The other day I happened to listen to it again, and decided to do some research on the Internet. Gloria Lynne, an Afro-American, was born in Harlem in 1929, sang in a church choir as a young girl; her career as a jazz and soul vocalist spanned decades; she died in 2007. Her single Watermelon Man went to number 8 on the R&B charts in 1965.
But, strangely enough, her song was nowhere to be found on iTunes. There is a live version of the same song, hidden on an obscure album, but the hit song was not available. There is a version by Jon Kendricks that has different lyrics, which do not emphasize the glory of eating watermelon as strongly as Gloria’s version.
On amazon.com I checked the top five albums by Gloria Lynne, all hit compilations, one of them a double disc with over 40 songs; none of the albums contains the song. The title of the first of these records, ‘The Greatest Hits’, is a blatant lie, because Watermelon Man was one of these greatest hits. Her Wikipedia entry doesn’t mention the song among her hits; there is a reference to it at the very end of the article.
That was when I started to smell a rat. As a rule of thumb, whenever something (for example a quotation, a book, a historical fact) or someone (for example an author, a painter) disappears without a trace, there must be a case of ‘Political Incorrectness‘. But concerning a song which celebrates watermelons of all things? “I would buy one from you every day… they make you almost want to eat the seeds… big, ripe, red, goody-good watermelons…. Everybody digs Watermelon Man!“
However, I was right, my instinct had not deceived me. I found out that the Watermelon Man is a racist stereotype used to ridicule Afro-Americans. Racist caricatures show a Black Man sinking his teeth greedily into a big slice of watermelon. There is a movie called Watermelon Man (1970), which deals with a racist waking up as an Afro-American one morning. Now he, an insurance salesman, who used to sneer at ‘Watermelon Men’, has become one himself.
Question: Is it possible that two Afro-American artists of the calibre of Herbie Hancock and Gloria Lynne were NOT aware of this connotation? I did some further research until I chanced upon Hancock’s autobiography Possibilities (2014), in which he addresses the topic in a clear, rational way:
“I took the situation apart analytically. I asked myself two questions: Is there anything wrong with watermelons? No. Is there anything inherently wrong with the watermelon man? No. I didn’t like the fact that something as innocent and inoffensive as a watermelon had been so completely co-opted by racism, and I didn’t want to give in to it, because giving in to it felt like giving in to that victim mentality, the tendency to accept, subsconsciously or otherwise, the negativity that racism directs at us.“
There’s nothing to be added; the song can be listened to on YouTube.