It is the story of "Noisy" Rhysling, the blind space-going songwriter whose poetic skills rival Rudyard Kipling's. Heinlein (himself a medically-retired U.S. naval officer) spins a yarn about a radiation-blinded spaceship engineer crisscrossing the solar system writing and singing songs.
Heinlein credited the title of the song, "The Green Hills of Earth", to the short story "Shambleau" by C. L. Moore (first published in 1933). In the story Moore's character, a spacefaring smuggler named Northwest Smith hums the tune of "The Green Hills of Earth".
The fragments have been filled out and additional stanzas added by the filk community. The song's meter allows it to be sung to a number of popular tunes including: "Amazing Grace"; "Greensleeves"; "The House of the Rising Sun"; "The Rising of the Moon / Wearing of the Green"; Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (in his Ninth Symphony, fourth movenemt); "Oh My Darling, Clementine"; "Semper Paratus"; "The Marine Corps Hymn"; "The Yellow Rose of Texas"; "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"; and the theme song from the TV show Gilligan's Island.
The story features several other partial songs and a number of titles attributed to Rhysling. These are:
Several are described as sexually-explicit songs excluded from the official edition of Rhysling's works — which might be a hint of Heinlein's own position at the time, facing editors' and publishers' censoring of such material in his stories and books.
Four collections of Rhysling's works are mentioned. They are:
Both the song "The Green Hills of Earth" and the character of Rhysling are mentioned in the novel Time Enough for Love. At an early point in the novel, Lazarus Long bemoans the fact that he cannot "pray for one last landing" because the "Green Hills of Earth" have deteriorated and the planet is uninhabitable. Later, Lazarus tells the story of a very blind accordion player who temporarily takes residence in a bordello that he owned on Mars almost two thousand years ago. Although Heinlein readers can easily recognize the character, Lazarus himself does not "recall his right name, if he had one."
The song "The Green Hills of Earth" is referenced thrice in Farmer in the Sky as a piece that Bill Lermer plays on his own accordion. Later in that same novel, Lermer is trying to identify a quote ("I have lived and worked with men") and guesses that it was written by Rhysling or Kipling.
Joe-Jim Gregory, the two-headed mutant in Universe, are both fond of "Rhysling, the blind singer of the spaceways." This reference to the character appeared six years before Heinlein actually published "The Green Hills of Earth."
The song "The Green Hills of Earth" which appears in the story was also used in the 11th episode of the third series of the British radio series, Journey into Space.
The 1951-1952 television series Out There (episode aired December 2, 1951) had a loosely-adapted version of the story (Rhysling is on a mission to the asteroids with a crew which includes a beautiful blonde biologist) which starred singer John Raitt.
In 1977, actor Leonard Nimoy recorded a dramatic reading of the story as the title track of an album for Caedmon Records. Nimoy narrated the song lyric excerpts as originally written by Heinlein without singing them.
In his book "Learning the World", Ken MacLeod pays homage to Heinlein by having a spacecraft evade an attack with the background intercom saying "All Hands! Stand by!" ... "Free Falling!" and the chapter concluding with "And the lights below us fade."