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The Sound of Success, Mobile Food Truck Edition

What does a folk song have to do with food trucks, Good Humor bars and the Beach Boys?

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The second in a series on sound and food. Read the first here.

When I started surfing, my dad gave me one of his old records. Go ahead, hit play.

That’s a clip of The Beach Boys’ 1963 “The Rocking Surfer,” a traditional song, the center of the vinyl explains, arranged by Brian Wilson. What’s this got to do with food? Well, this story starts around 1920:

Harry Burt lived in Youngstown, Ohio. An inventive candy maker, he was responsible for the Jolly Boy Sucker, a lollipop on a stick. He eventually tried to imitate the I-Scream, later renamed the Eskimo pie, and after some messy failures, his son Harry Jr. suggested he freeze the lollipop stick into an ice cream bar. Behold, ice cream on a stick: the Good Humor bar.

Burt’s inventiveness didn’t stop there. He added bells to his pushcarts—bells he apparently took off the family bobsled. In doing so, Burt went beyond merely announcing the arrival of a mobile ice cream vendor, says Daniel T. Neely, an independent scholar in New York who has written a paper, “Ding! Ding! The Commodity Aesthetic of Ice Cream Truck Music,” in the forthcoming book The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music and Sound Studies.

“They took some of the visual and sonic cues of the soda fountain and applied them to what they were doing,” Neely told me. The jingling bells intentionally evoked the innocence and a post-Civil War prosperity, he says, a nostalgia for the ice cream parlors and ice cream saloons of the late 19th century, places that not only conjured up leisure and respite, but also housed overbuilt soda fountains and player pianos and Wurlitzer music boxes. Neely writes:

Burt’s choice of small bobsled bells for his ice cream trucks was significant because it both recalled the familiar timbre of coin operated soda fountain automata and signified a wintry sound that conveyed ice cream’s relieving coldness in hot weather. In addition, the delicate sound of small bells and their frequent association with juvenescence tapped into a rapidly changing consumer culture of the time, especially as it was directed towards children.

During the Depression, Paul Hawkins, the owner of a Good Humor of California franchise in Los Angeles founded in 1929, made another lasting innovation: amplified music. He rigged up a mechanical music box under the hood of his truck. (The first box may have been built by Louis Bacigalupi, an organ maker and professional wrestler). Then he cranked out a nine-second loop of the folk song “Stodola Poompa” to evoke the then-familiar music boxes over a long distance—on the road. The sonic brand of ice cream trucks helped lay the groundwork for another boom in Southern California: food trucks.

As for the Good Humor man’s original proprietary jingle—“Stodola Pompa” (which may have been derived from a traditional drinking song, “Išla Marina do cintorína,” and was adopted by the YWCA, camps and other recreational children’s groups)—the melody also embedded itself in another iconic piece of the Southern California culture, Neely says: The Beach Boys’ used it for their 1963 tune “The Rocking Surfer.”

Photo: “Vendor wears uniform and money-changer device on belt”/Good Humor Collection, ca. 1930-1990, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The second in a series on sound and food. Read the first here. And, stay tuned, for irritation and anti-noise campaigns.

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