“Happy Birthday To You”

Towering Song

The melody to this enduring song is quite likely the most sung music in history, including all the output of the three B’s, Beethoven, Bach and The Beatles. The tune was first published exactly 103 years ago, in a book titled, “Song Stories of the Kindergarten,” wherein “Happy Birthday,” was “Good Morning To All,” sung to the same melody.

The song was written by two sisters, Mildred Hill, an organist, concert pianist and teacher and Patty Smith Hill, who wrote the lyrics to “Good Morning to All,” while serving as the principal of the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, where her sister, Mildred, was a teacher. The school, one of the earliest to utilize modern methods of teaching young children, and the Hill sisters, were honored in an educational exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

The sisters copyrighted their original song in October 1893 but years later in March of 1924, it appeared without authorization in a songbook edited by a Robert H. Coleman. In the book, Coleman used the original title and first stanza lyrics but altered the second stanza’s opening line to read, “Happy Birthday To You.” Thus, through Coleman, the sisters’ line “Good Morning dear children,” became “Happy Birthday dear (name).”

During the next decade, the song was published several times, each time with minor alterations in the lyrics. By 1933, the widely accepted title was “Happy Birthday To You.” When the song was soon being belted nightly in the Broadway musical, “As Thousands Cheer,” a third Hill sister, Jessica, tired of the ongoing theft of the melody and total lack of royalty payments, took the case to court.

In that earlier lime, the concept of intellectual rights was not nearly as advanced as it is today. People were shocked to leam that payments were owed the sister composers for every use of the song. The show “As Thousands Cheer” dropped the tune from its score and Western Union and Postal Telegraph both ceased using the song in singing telegrams. A Broadway hit play with Helen Hayes, “Happy Birthday,” arranged for the star to speak the lyrics so the producers might avoid paying royalties to the authors.

Mildred Hill died in 1916 at age 57, a number of years before the tune became “Happy Birthday To You,” while Patty Smith Hill, died in 1946 at age 78, well aware that she and her sister had started a worldwide birthday tradition.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday To You,” is one of the three most popular pieces in the English language, the other two being “Auld Lang Syne” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, ‘Happy Birthday’ earns its owner royalty fees to the tune of six figures annually.”

Not too bad for a couple of earnest and hard-working school teachers!