The 1927 musical comedy A Connecticut Yankee by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart was based on Mark Twain’s book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The song “Thou Swell” was introduced by the stars William Gaxton and Constance Carpenter. The show ran for 418 performances and was revived in 1943 for 135 performances. The 1929 London production was entitled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur and starred Vivienne Segal. “Thou Swell” enjoyed seven weeks on the charts in 1928, rising to number 10 with the Ben Selvin Orchestra. The show also introduced another song that would enter the jazz standards repertoire, “My Heart Stood Still.”
According to David Ewen in The Complete Book of the American Musical Theater “Thou Swell” was not well-received in the Philadelphia tryouts, so the producers suggested that it be dropped. Rodgers agreed but with the stipulation that it be included in the New York opening to test audience reaction. New Yorkers loved it, so it stayed in the show.
In the 1948 fictionalized film biography of Rodgers and Hart, Words and Music, June Allyson performed “Thou Swell” with the dancing Blackburn Twins. The 1949 film, titled after the Twain book, starred Bing Crosby, William Bendix, and Rhonda Fleming. Victor Young scored the film because of copyright problems with the Rodgers and Hart score.
The 1999 TV documentary The Rodgers and Hart Story: Thou Swell, Thou Witty was presented on Great Performances and features archival footage of Rodgers and Hart. A ballet entitled “Thou Swell,” choreographed by Peter Martins and including other songs by Rodgers and Hart, was first presented by the New York City Ballet in 2002.
In his book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era: 1924-1950, Allen Forte says, “In his exploitation of rhythmic figures that originated in the ragtime era and that were subsequently absorbed by popular songs in various ways, ‘Thou Swell’ provides ample demonstration of Richard Rodgers’ rhythmic inventiveness.”
Alec Wilder in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 notes that the verse seems to have been written for Fred Astaire. “It starts out innocuously, but in the fifth measure it resorts to a series of leaps which fall in odd places just as a dancer might like them to.”
Hart cleverly integrated olde English words into the lyrics: “Wouldst kiss me pretty? Wouldst hold my hand?” In his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists Philip Furia says, “A Connecticut Yankee gave Hart a perfect chance to undercut sentimentality by rhyming antiquated diction with modern slang. Like Mark Twain, who mingled western tall-talk with medieval archaisms in the original book, Hart bounced between linguistic extremes in songs such as ‘Thou Swell.’” As an example Furia cites this excerpt from the song:
Both thine eyes are cute, too--
What they do to
Hear me holler I choose a
Jazz stalwarts Bix Beiderbecke, Shorty Rogers, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, and John Lewis with Lester Young have recorded the tune as well as pianists Billy Taylor, Dorothy Donegan, Horace Silver, and Sir Roland Hanna. Dorothy Ashby played it on harp and Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan sang it. Billy May recorded it with his orchestra for Sorta Dixie, and trombonist/bandleader Rob McConnell included it in his CD Music of the Twenties. Current performances include those by saxophonists George Coleman and Bud Shank, pianist Joanne Brackeen, and vocalists Stacey Kent and Wesla Whitfield.