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How ice cream truck jingles and their sometimes dark history have evolved




People wait in line for ice cream in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City.
People wait in line for ice cream in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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Even years into adulthood, the signature ice cream truck jingle can rekindle pleasant childhood memories.

"It’s all a matter of nostalgia, recognizing the tune, having the right tempo and having the right symmetry in the songs themselves. That is what’s familiar to us and that is what gets us running out into the streets to buy an ice cream cone," S.J. Velasquez, BBC.com producer, told Airtalk's Patt Morrison. 

One of the most recognizable ice cream truck tunes, "Turkey in the Straw," dates back to the 19th century and has become synonymous with buying frozen treats from neighborhood vendors.

Velasquez said the timeless tunes have evolved over time to lure customers to these moving dessert dispensaries

"It happened over time, it was a bit of an evolution," Velasquez said. "The first person to have been documented to have used any kind of a jingle is the Good Humor ice cream truck. They used sleigh bells, traditional sleigh bells right from the sled, and then that evolved. Eventually, a Good Humor salesman started using jingles, and over time, he started using different songs. The first jingle that we’re aware of, an actual tune that was cranked out in chimes, is an Eastern European song called “Stodola Pumpa.”

"Turkey in the Straw," "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "The Entertainer" are a few of the commonly recycled ice cream truck theme songs. Aside from their frequent usage, she said they do tend to share a universal formula that makes them ideal for ice cream vendors. 

"I spoke to a man by the name of Dan Neely, he is the go-to guy when it comes to learning about anything ice cream truck-jingle related, and he said yes, there are key elements to the songs. They’re generally older songs, kiddie tunes that you might remember from kindergarten, they’re usually upbeat, have a repetitive symmetry and can be chopped down to a very short jingle and can be recognized within a few seconds," Velasquez said.

Sometimes these infantile and simple harmonies sometimes have a darker past. Very few people might be aware that the familiar "Turkey in the Straw's" has some association to minstrel songs. 

"Yes, it does have some dark history to it. I asked a few of my sources for the story about the history of this particular tune, and they did defend the song — not the racist song that is referred to, but the older song. “Turkey in the Straw,” much like a lot of other minstrel songs, were not actually minstrel songs when they were first written. “Turkey in the Straw” is actually an updated version of an old Irish or English tune called, “The Old Rose Tree.” That was a very beautiful dance song that was co-opted," she said.  

Whether you have a favorite ice cream truck tune that wasn't mentioned, or a memorable exchange with your childhood neighborhood vendor, share your comments with us in the discussion thread below.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

This story has been updated.

Guest:

S.J. Velasquez, Homepage and Features Producer, BBC.com; she tweets from @sjvelasquez