The Sounds of the American Summer – Ice Cream Trucks

Music and Ice Cream Trucks

Officially, in North America, the summer season does not begin until June 20th or 21st which is the date of the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. However, if you are a resident of the United States, then we all know by popular vote the “unofficial” start of summer actually begins at the end of the working day on the last Friday in the month of May, known as Memorial Day and is celebrated for the whole weekend.

The Memorial Day holiday is dedicated to honoring and remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.

The Memorial Day holiday weekend is celebrated publicly in many ways including parades, trips to the beaches, sweating it out with a trip to the hot inner city or visiting a local farm or rural area most likely with a lake or pond. People use this time to bbq with family and friends, sun bathe, swim/float around swimming pools, the ocean or the lake/pond. While we always seem to recall the sights and smells of the season, you certainly can not forget the sounds as well!

Music and popular songs come and go, but one sound has been consistent since 1929 – the music and sound of the ice cream truck. The first was a local ice cream vendor who put a speaker on top of his truck and played a Polish folk song called The Farm Pump. Today, we have music boxes designed for the trucks that can play a selection of songs, mostly in the public domain, or even original music.

They are usually set to loop at around 40 seconds – designed to be recognizable (ear worm), loud (getting attention) and exciting (it’s ice cream!) all at once. The music may drive you crazy, but think of the poor driver/ ice cream salesman hearing that annoying 40 second loop for 12 hours a day.

In 1960, Mister Softee, the largest mobile cream franchisor with over 600 trucks, introduced the Mister Softee Theme (Jingle and Chimes), based on The Whistler and His Dog by Lester Morton “Les” Waas. Most other trucks use ‘public domain’ music, which has the advantage of not having to pay a royalty fee. The downside is, some of that music has, for lack of a better description, a racist past.

Top Ten Ice Cream Truck Themes

10. Turkey in the Straw – Originally based on an Irish folk song called The Old Rose Tree, it was adapted into minstrel music shows in the 1820s, even through the 1910’s. Minstrel music shows were generally disparaging to African Americans to say the least. Barney the Dinosaur, from the children’s television show sang a very sanitized version of the song.

9. Camptown Races (1850) and Oh! Suzanna (1848) were written by America’s first professional songwriter, Stephen Foster. Several of his songs were used in Mistral shows, including these, and were written before the Civil War. Many of his songs had no racial context.

8. Dixie (1861) Dixie was about Antebellum (the wealthy southern lifestyle) prior to the civil war, much of it due to the work of slave labor.

7. Jimmy Crack Corn (1840s) was a song about a slave’s lament after his master’s death. Then again, a closer look at the lyrics indicated he may have been happy about the death. Barney also sanitized this song for children.

6. La Cucaracha (1800s Mexican folk song) not racist at all, and probably the most popular song about a cockroach who cannot walk, to entice children to eat ice cream.

5. Pop Goes The Weasel (1852) began as a social dance in England. The ambiguous phrase has been used in many pop culture mediums – books, film and television. In the 1930s, it became the tune for Jack-in-the-Box windup toys. Barney covered it too.

4. I’m a Little Teapot (1939) “I’m a little teapot, Short and stout, Here is my handle Here is my spout When I get all steamed up, Hear me shout, Tip me over and pour me out!” Probably the last Nursery Rhyme to be a radio hit.

3. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star – the lyrics were written by Jane Taylor in 1806 (England), and the melody came from Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, (1761, France).

2. It’s a Small World, written by brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman in 1962, and inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is probably the only popular ice cream truck music that needs a royalty payment. Why? Because it may be the second most well-known song in the Western World, behind Happy Birthday. As mentioned above, it’s annoying, attention-getting, and children run to it, especially when they hear the tune coming from a monotone ice cream truck.

1. The Entertainer (1902) written by Scott Joplin, is one of the most famous instrumentals of the recorded sound era. It was the biggest ragtime hit, and brings the perfect ‘nostalgia’ feeling for both children and adults when it comes to ice cream.

A Brief History of Ice Cream:

  • Ice cream really started as water ice almost 2000 years ago with the ROMANS bringing ICE down from the ALPS.
  • Ice cream as we know it was made in homes Italy and France by the 1700s.
  • By the LATE 1700s, we had ice cream in AMERICA.
  • In the 1830s, immigrants brought the old country recipes via horse drawn carriages with glass bowls, that were rinsed out and reused by the venders to the buying public, who licked the ice cream out of the bowls. (Sanitation wasn’t something they paid a lot of attention to back then.)
  • By 1900 or so, the ICE CREAM SANDWICH helped with that, prepackaged, and nobody else’s tongue in your bowl.
  • The Ice Cream was introduced at THE 1904 ST LOUIS WORLD’S FAIR, which also introduced us to the Hot Dog Roll.

In 1920, a guy named Harry Burnt invented the twin-handled Good Humor Bar. He started with a dozen Good Humor trucks later that year. Good Humor had thousands of trucks going by the 1950s when Mister Softee started in Philadelphia. By 1960, the Mister Softee Theme (Jingle and Chimes) was playing from trucks on a drum-and-spindle machine – it sounds mechanical because it originally was.

Jack and Jill, another Philadelphia company, started in 1929. They are still in the ice cream delivery business, but primarily to businesses for retail. Both Good Humor and Jack and Jill no longer use trucks, but you can find them in most supermarkets. There are a lot of independent Gourmet Ice Cream Trucks around… so keep an ear open for street delivery of your favorite ice cream!