It’s one of the most familiar, unmistakable sounds of summer. The silence of a hot August afternoon is suddenly breached by music. It’s high-pitched, tinny, repetitive music, to be sure, but music nonetheless. A melody grows louder and louder: “Turkey In The Straw,” or at least the first four bars of “Turkey In The Straw,” playing endlessly on a loop. Children of all ages know that this heralds the approach of an ice cream truck, bearing wildly overpriced Bomb Pops, Dreamsicles, and Choco Tacos. Every year, pop culture journalists debate which catchy Top 40 ditty deserves to be deemed “the song of the summer.” But ice cream trucks play the songs of every summer, namely public domain favorites like “Yankee Doodle,” “Brahms’ Lullaby,” and Scott Joplin’s deathless “The Entertainer.” But where does this music come from, besides the collective unconscious? Over at The Current, writer Cecilia Johnson pays a visit to Nichols Electronics in Richfield, Minnesota. The proud owners of this family business can boast that they are “the leading ice cream music box manufacturers.”
Yes, there is a good reason that ice cream trucks generally sound the same in every city and town across America, at least the ones where such vehicles are still welcome. (Phooey on Bloomington and its fancy-schmancy noise ordinances.) Apart from a few rogue trucks that play their own music, most professional ice cream distribution vehicles come complete with a music box from Nichols Electronics. Today, Mark Nichols and his wife, Beth, are carrying on a business founded by Nichols’ father back in the 1950s. The company’s “all-star” model is something called the Digital II, capable of playing eight different songs. And how, exactly, did the company decide on which songs to use? “The Entertainer” became a staple after it was reintroduced in 1973’s The Sting. As for the other songs, what’s important is that they’re not copyright protected. “It isn’t worth getting in trouble over rights issues,” Nichols explains. Besides, by using the same few songs over and over, those very tunes have become virtually synonymous with ice cream consumption in the minds of many.