January 05, 2014

Horse 1586 - Why Is Greensleeves The Default Song Of Ice Cream Vans?

From Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge; with the reliability of a bunch of people yelling down the pub:
In some parts of the world, including areas of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, the "Greensleeves" tune is popular as a standard chime for ice cream vans.

- take note of the complete absence of children in this picture

Why Greensleeves?
Can someone explain this phenomenon? For many of us, ice cream vans were something which went down the streets in our childhood and from which very little was bought. Invariably all sorts of excuses were invented as to why we were never likely to get any "fake" ice cream and then we'd all stand to the side of the streets and watch as the pastel pink Bedford CF or Ford Transit van went off sniggering; still playing Greensleeves.

Why Greensleeves?

We know that the song was assumed to be very well known by the late 1500s, for Falstaff in Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" remarks: Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves'! and there are no other remarks as to what that tune is - a bit like
Psalms 57, 58 and 59 which are all to the tune of "Do Not Destroy" (whatever that was).
There is a theory that Greensleeves is about the advances of King Henry VIII being continuously rejected by Anne Boleyn but it appears to have been published after his death - it can be found in "William Ballet's Lute Book" which was published in 1580.

A full set of lyrics to Greensleeves can be found here:

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.

Inherently it doesn't make any sense to me as to why a song about a suitor who has been brushed off and burned so monumentally should be the default tune for ice cream vans. There could be an argument mounted that because it was published in 1580, it has well passed beyond the reach of copyright law but equally, the same could be said for all songs for which copyright has lapsed. Is it merely a matter of expectation because one ice cream van played Greensleeves; so therefore all others also play it to fulfill that expectation?

I have on good authority and good humor that ice cream vans in the United States play a far wider range of tunes than they do in Australia; including "Turkey In The Straw", "The Entertainer" and even "Anchors Aweigh" among other things. Does this mean that Australian ice cream vans are just less ambitious than those in the United States? Ice cream trucks in the United States date from the 1920's whereas in Australia, they don't appear to have made much of an impact until after WW2; our American friends had a 30 years' head start. Mind you, America as a thing generally does Christmas, New Years', the national day; practically everything requiring celebration, better than Australia does.

Is that what's going on here? Maybe America simply knows how to have fun better than we do. It makes sense to have happy songs blaring out from the ice cream van. The ice cream van for America is the harbinger of joy whereas in Australia, it is not.
America has bound up in its modern mythology, the idea of summers and surfing, even if you're a thousand miles inland but Australian summers are etched with the noises of a billion cicadas, cricket on the radio and the sensation that we're simply not as likely to get any "fake" ice cream from a van which goes down the street. The Ice Cream Van in America is a sweet sweet noise drifting through the air but in Australia it marks the bitter taste of disappointment for most children. We seem to have inherited a very British sense of unworthiness when it comes to having fun and we can't seem to escape from it.

Greensleeves might be the song of the van itself - "Alas, my love, you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously" - wailing as it goes, for the joy which continues to be undispensed in white zwiebelturm and the lament of millions of Australian children, who have been brushed off by their parents and barred from buying ice cream from the van.

- also take note of the complete absence of children in this video

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

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