‘Happy Birthday To You’ is one of the most frequently sung songs of all time, listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the three most-sung songs in the English language (along with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’), and has become part of almost every birthday celebration – it has even been sung in space. Nobody knows how many languages it has been translated into – except to say it is an awful lot.
The story of its creation is linked with the advanced teaching methods of a young American pioneer of modern pedagogics. Patty Hill was twenty-one years old when, in 1889, she graduated from the Kindergarten Teachers Training College in Louisville, Kentucky. Her great abilities and progressive views on education had not gone unnoticed by the principal. He felt that it would be of great advantage to the College to retain her services. Patty gladly accepted his offer to become head of the College infants school, knowing that she would be given every support in implementing some of her novel ideas. On her appointment, she was joined at the school by her sister Mildred, a music teacher.
Patty was convinced that for a school to be truly successful, it had to be a cheerful place. Only a joyful and relaxed atmosphere could bring our the best from teachers and pupils. Most of all, Patty believed in teaching by song.
To put her idea into practice, she published, jointly with her sister, Song Stories for the Kindergarten and Primary Schools in 1893. Patty wrote the words and Mildred set them to music. Of all the songs in the collection, their favourite was ‘Good Morning To All’. It was intended to be sung at the beginning of every school day:
While retaining the melody Patty one day changed the lyrics, replacing them with the now well-known words of ‘Happy Birthday To You’. They were to be sung on the birthday of every pupil.
An instant success, the song soon spread beyond the confines of the school. Its very simplicity and directness appealed to people of all ages.
‘Happy Birthday To You’ was also, in fact, the first song to be sung in space (by a human, at least). On March 8, 1969, the astronauts on Apollo IX sang it to celebrate the birthday of Christopher Kraft, at that time director of NASA space operations.
There is also a small 17-space parking lot in Louisville just southwest of Main and Ninth streets named the Happy Birthday Parking Lot in honour of the Hill sisters.
Patty went on to have a brilliant and influential career. In 1905 she left Louisville to study at Columbia University and to work in the Speyer School Experimental Playroom in New York. She was also awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Letters in 1929 for her work as head of the Free Kindergarten Association.
Mildred, sadly, passed away in 1916. Long after Mildred’s death, Patty and a third Hill sister, Jessica, began a long court battle to retake the rights to ‘Happy Birthday To You’. They won in 1934, and in 1935 the song was finally registered in the names of Patty and Mildred Hill in the US Copyright Office.
The Copyright to ‘Happy Birthday To You’
‘Good Morning to All’ is public domain. It was first published in 1893 and again in the revised edition of Song Stories for the Kindergarten and Primary Schools in 1896. It was never copyrighted.
In 1924, businessman Robert Coleman published ‘Good Morning to All’ in a songbook, including the Happy Birthday variation of the lyrics as a second verse. He republished this second verse under the title ‘Happy Birthday’ in The American Hymnal in 1933, and it was also published in Children’s Praise and Worship in 1928, though not by Coleman.
In 1931, before the eventual registration of copyright, ‘Happy Birthday to You’ appeared the Broadway musical The Band Wagon. I don’t know the fate of any attempts to perform the play since the copyright came into force. However, as Infinite Burn points out, Leonard Bernstein was unable to use a two-line snippet of the song in On The Town in 1944.
The only difference in the melodies of ‘Good Morning to All’ and ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is the Good in the first line is split to form Hap-py. Because the melody of ‘Good Morning to All’ is public domain, it should be legal to use for any reason – as long as the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics are not used. This has never been tested, and I can find no relevant legal precedents. Interestingly, it should also be possible to put any lyrics of your own devising to the same tune – including lyrics which split the first note over two syllables. If only someone had told Bernstein that.
It is often claimed that the Hill estate owns the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday to You’, but this is not the case. tregoweth is correct in asserting the copyright is owned by the company formerly known as AOL Time Warner, ( more accurately, Warner-Chappell/Summy-Birchard), and has been since 1988. The legitimacy of any copyright over the song, however, is highly contentious.
- An in-depth analysis of the copyright status of ‘Happy Birthday to You’: http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2003/7/5/112441/6280
- The Happy Birthday Parking Lot: http://www.courier-journal.com/localnews/2002/08/28/ke082802s266535.htm
- Most Sung Song: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/
- Histories and biographies:
Sadly, the relevant page at Snopes was offline when researching this w/u: http://www.snopes.com/music/songs/birthday.htm And of course, tregoweth and Infinite Burn’s respective w/u’s in Happy Birthday to You.