This piece was introduced by the ensemble in Of Thee I Sing at the Music Box Theatre in New York City on December 26, 1931.
It was originally a mock medieval march called “Trumpets of Belgravia” (that lyric went, “Trumpets of Belgravia/Sing ta-ra, ta-ra, ta-ra”). It was written in the mid-1920s for an un-produced show called The Big Charade. Several years later, when Gershwin was stuck for a campaign march while writing Of Thee I Sing, Ira recalled “Trumpets” and he and George turned it into “Wintergreen For President.”
In Let 'Em Eat Cake, the 1933 sequel to Of Thee I Sing, “Wintergreen For President” is played in counterpoint to a second campaign song entitled “Tweedledee For President.”
Oscar Hammerstein II pointed to “Wintergreen” as a perfect example of words wedded to music, saying that it is impossible to think of the words without the music and vice-versa.
George Gershwin was invited by President Franklin Roosevelt to a New Year's Eve party at the White House. When he played the piano for the president the selections inevitably included “Wintergreen For President,” and some who were there recalled seeing FDR's crippled legs bounce in time to the music.
The lyric consists of just fifteen words. But the music, at eighty-five bars, is more than twice the length of the usual popular song. Also, it is through composed; that is, there are no repeating sections. At its heart is an emphatic seven-note motive in the bass (“Wintergreen For President”). This motive is usually followed by an ethereal seven-note idea, one that is sometimes sung to the syllable “Ah” and sometimes relegated to the accompaniment. The accompaniment is a collection of ingenious oom-pah figures. New oom-pahs appear throughout the score, as do Fourth of July-style musical quotations. These come in the following order:
“Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa
“Tammany” by Gus Edwards
“Sidewalks of New York” by Charles B. Lawler
“Hail Hail the Gang's All Here” by Sir Arthur Sullivan
“Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” by Theodore Mets
One should note the way Gershwin handles these quotations: the way they arise out of the minor key material in sudden major key fanfares and then melt back into the march. The piece ends with a twelve-bar coda made from a final development of the original seven-note motive.
In the April 30, 1934 edition of his “Music By Gershwin” radio program, the composer led the orchestra in a snippet of “Wintergreen For President,” saying that the piece would be played in its entirety on his next show. Unfortunately, that next broadcast was not preserved.