This song was introduced by Fred Astaire, Jan Duggan, Mary Dean, Pearl Amatore and Betty Rome in A Damsel in Distress, a film released by RKO onNovember 19, 1937.
It is in 6/8 time and marked allegretto scherzando. The verse is in A-minor, the refrain in F.
On May 12, 1937 Gershwin wrote a letter to Isaac Goldberg (the author, in 1931, of the first Gershwin biography). In it he complained that his and Ira's songs for Shall We Dance had been poorly showcased. He also complained that the only two singers in the film had been Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “In our next picture,” he wrote, “Damsel in Distress,” we have protected ourselves in that we have a madrigal group of singers and have written two English type ballads for background music so the audience will get a chance to hear some singing besides the crooning of the stars.” As it turned out, Astaire did join in the singing of this tune, although he was not involved in the performance of the other madrigal, “Sing of Spring.”
In 1976 “Sing of Spring” saw publication for the first time. At that time it and “The Jolly Tar and the Milk Maid” were published by Lawson-Gould, Inc. (of New York) in Gershwin's original version, which was for a four-part chorus of mixed voices with piano accompaniment. This version of “The Jolly Tar,” unlike the piano/vocal edition published in 1937, ends with an attractive five-bar vocalise.
The verse (“There was a Jolly British Tar who met a milk maid bonny”) has two stanzas. In the first the sailor asks the lady to marry him, while in the second he changes his mind, having recalled that he already has wives in Kerry, Spain and Timbuktu. The music has a convincing madrigal feel. It is a bouncy twenty-two bar tune introduced by a pleasant high register piano introduction and vamp.
In the refrain (“'Our hearts could rhyme,' said she”) the singers, again in separate stanzas, consider the possibility of a romance—but decide against it for the sake of their spouses and children. The music here has the same springy character as the verse. Its structure is odd: after a brief, four-bar idea (ending with “'Tis flattered I'm,' said she”) there comes a one-bar idea (“But oh, ah me”) that goes through a fifteen-bar long series of false endings and hesitant extensions. This makes for a playfully indecisive quality that matches the attitude of the flirting couple. The second time around the refrain is not nineteen but twenty-five bars long, having been given a harmonically inventive coda.
In 1976 Gershwin's original version for mixed chorus and piano was recorded by Catherine Ask and Jeffrey Meyer. The original version from the movie can be seen and heard at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1C-_Adawq8