Waits wrote the song with his future wife Kathleen Brennan, who had been living in New Jersey. It is one of Waits' most tender songs, and captures a feeling of romantic longing despite its somewhat gritty details.
Waits said in a 1980 interview that, "I never thought I would catch myself saying 'sha la la' in a song ... This is my first experiment with 'sha la la.'" Waits' recording includes drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, and glockenspiel, in an arrangement that captures the feeling of the seashore by way of "Under the Boardwalk" or "Spanish Harlem".
The song is also included on Waits' compilation albums Bounced Checks (1981), Anthology of Tom Waits (1985), and Used Songs, 1973-1980 (2001). Waits also included a quiet performance of it during his 1999 appearance on VH1 Storytellers.
The song is also known as performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and released as the B-side of his 1984 hit single "Cover Me". Springsteen introduced the song in July 1981 during the encores of a special River Tourhomecoming stand that opened Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, saying "I just want to say that you guys made tonight for us ... this is something special that we learned for ya." He slightly rewrote it to replace a Waits line about "whores on Eighth Avenue" with "the girls out on the avenue", and added a verse about taking "that little brat of yours and drop[ping] her off at your mom's." The July 9 performance from this stand was used on the "Cover Me" release. A few weeks later on August 24, Waits joined Springsteen onstage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to perform the song together. "Jersey Girl" then became the closing track of Springsteen's 1986 box set Live/1975-85, as Springsteen and producer Jon Landau felt it accurately represented the final phase of the loose story arc that connected the songs on the album together.
"Jersey Girl" would become a Springsteen fan favorite, played often in New Jersey and sometimes Philadelphia shows during the 1980s and early 1990s. Its appearances then became even rarer, being picked to open the last of 15 Meadowlands shows in 1999 on the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Reunion Tour – as what The New York Times termed "a reward for [the fans'] faith and perseverance," close the last of 10 shows at New Jersey's Giants Stadium in 2003 on The Rising Tour, and be the next-to-last song in the three-show run at Giants Stadium in 2008 on the Magic Tour. The song was played as the first fan requested song at his October 3, 2009 show and was the final song performed during the last October 9, 2009 show before the demolition of Giants Stadium.
Because the Springsteen version of the song was more played on radio and because Springsteen was often associated with New Jersey, it was not unusual for people to mistakenly think Springsteen had written it.
The song is sometimes erroneously associated with the "Jersey Girl" cultural stereotype, but in fact it makes no mention of most of the traits — such as big hair — usually associated with that stereotype. One writer for The New York Times stated that "the Jersey girl, the one Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen sing about, knows she'll get what she wants," and listed Springsteen's wife Patti Scialfa and Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman as examples that befit the song.