The song describes the legendary river in a poetic and nostalgic way, that it is surrounded by mountains, its sources are near the city of Surakarta, that it ends in the sea, and that the merchant class always makes use of it.
Written in 1940 by Gesang Martohartono, it is in the local kroncong style, a popular folk style with influences from Portuguese. The Japanese, who occupied the country during World War II, brought the song with them to Japan after returning from the war. There, and also in the rest of Asia and later worldwide, the song became very famous.
The song's widespread popularity began soon after its composition, and locally it is strongly associated with the period of war occupation and the society of the times. In 1940 Gesang, then a young, destitute and untrained musician, composed the song on a bamboo flute and began to sing it at local functions and gatherings in his hometown of Surakarta. It soon became well-known and liked among the local Javanese community; the song then achieved national acclaim after it was broadcast to a wider audience by various radio stations.
The melodies of the song also appealed to both the occupying Japanese soldiers, and the non-Indonesian prisoners (mainly Dutch civilians) in the internment camps. The song was taken back to Japan by the returning soldiers, where it (with the lyrics translated to Japanese) gained great popularity after various singers such as Toshi Matsuda released recorded versions of it which became best-sellers. The song has become almost synonymous with the perception of Indonesian music in Japan.
In 1991, a group of appreciative Japanese war veterans arranged for a statue of Martohartono to be erected in a park in Surakarta. Gesang himself was still resident in the city, now a nationally renowned figure .
"Bengawan Solo" is a popular name given to restaurants and businesses, in reminiscence of the song.