Four Little Sirens


Page 1 of George Gershwin’s manuscript for “Four Little Sirens”

You know a George Gershwin song is a rarity when your options for locating it are the Library of Congress and a University in Tasmania. The good folks at the Library of Congress were kind enough to send out a copy, upon receipt of payment, of this 1921 song. It failed to make the cut into the Broadway show A Dangerous Maid, but it did finally appear on stage in London’s Primrose of 1924.

Ira Gershwin makes a reference in the lyrics to this song being “a sort of Sullivan song,” referring to the late 19th century operetta creators Gilbert and Sullivan. This song was sung as a quartet by four sirens, the beautiful mythical women with harps and captivating singing voices who lured sea-faring men toward their rocky coast. The subject matter and the musical treatment sound fairly dated now, but both Gershwins greatly admired Gilbert and Sullivan and were perfectly happy writing a song in that vein.

Ira and Yip Harburg

Yip Harburg (top) and Ira Gershwin c.1915

While in high school, Ira and his friend Yip Harburg were both ardent admirers of lyricist and light verse writer W. S. Gilbert. But it was Ira who learned that the Gilbert verses they both loved actually had melodies attached to them, and he was able to inform his friend Yip of this by inviting him to the Gershwin home to listen to his father Morris Gershwin’s record of H.M.S. Pinafore. (As you may know, these two high school buddies, Ira and Yip, went on to become the preeminent American lyricists of the 20th century.)

Ira includes some self-deprecatory lines about how puns are frowned upon after he describes the sirens as getting along “swimmingly.” George has fun with the genre by throwing in a “London Bridges” melody.

I transposed this song to C in the sheet music and my recording to help me figure out chords. I needed to simplify it as much as possible since I was working from George’s manuscript which is often very tricky and demanding to decipher. Also, George’s original key was A, then F, then G flat, and then back to A. Working from a manuscript on a long song like this is a labor of love requiring a lot of time and focus to work through any of the following:

  • Interpretting the composer’s notation shortcuts,
  • Differentiating an exotic harmony from a mistake in notation,
  • Determining what is a cross-out and what isn’t, and
  • Deciding what harmonies are left out because Gershwin assumed the arranger (or himself) would know to repeat earlier passages.

So I did the best I could and basically used George’s arrangement note for note. I sadly don’t have the luxury that George’s longtime arranger Albert Sirmay had: access to George Gershwin to verify my reading of the manuscript. Hopefully someday a real arranger can pick up where I left off and make this piece sound even better! Where’s Albert Sirmay when you need him?

Download a PDF of the fake-book style sheet music to “Four Little Sirens” here: Four Little Sirens

Lyrics to “Four Little Sirens” by Ira Gershwin:
(Where Ira provided alternate lyrics, I made substitutions in the above pdf sheet music as seemed appropriate.)

Four little sirens, we,
Making the mermen fall for us.
We never go in the sea,
But we work as well as any sirens of mythology.

Four little sirens, we,
Making the mermen call for us.
We never swim in the sea,
Still we get along quite swimmingly.

It’s bad to pun,
It isn’t being done,
But still we get along quite swimmingly,

If you should come along the beach,
If you should come within our reach.
Take care!  Beware!
For though your fingers may be crossed,
Your heart soon tells you that you’re lost;
Poor John!  You’re gone!

For we are beautiful,
We’re tutti-frutti-ful;
With charm perpetual,
We get you all.
We get you one and all.
We’re grace personified;
Our forms are bona fide.

So you who linger on the shore
Fall by the score
Without a fuss.
And when the waves grow very wild,
You find they’re mild
Compared to us.

Each one of us works a diff’rent plan To catch the poor fish know as man.

The men all follow me; My popularity
Depends on something stronger than tea. [Shows whiskey flask]

My method, I’ll confess, Has brought me great success~
It’s simply knowing how to say yes.

When I see a big wave coming, I just murmur, “Oh, sir!
I’m afraid, so won’t you cuddle closer?

My work is never rough; No Theda Bara stuff.++
I find a baby stare is enough.

Four little sirens, we,
Making the mermen fall for us,
Making the mermen call for us,
Making them say they’re all for us;
Four little fly little sly little sirens, we.


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