Song Lyrics Sunday: Happy Birthday

The ubiquitous classic, Happy Birthday to You, actually has a rather interesting history.*

I’ve chosen this song for Jim Adams’ Song Lyrics Sunday  with the theme Birthday/Cake/Gift/Party/Surprise   first, because I was able to find a fun version of it and second, because it’s the song we’re all singing in our bathrooms as we wash our hands 20 times a day during this Covid-19 crisis! If you sing the happy birthday song twice through, you’ve taken up about 20 seconds, which is how long you are supposed to lather and scrub your hands to totally rid them of any lurking malicious germs and viruses.
How to wash your hands properly, according to doctors

According to the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records, Happy Birthday to You is the most recognized song in the English language, and it has been translated into about 20 other languages.

Here’s a sort of cute “theme and variations” of this classic folk song, all parts sung by Charles Cornell (alone and practicing social distancing, I’m sure! 😉 ), who apparently does a lot of these variations on common ditties on YouTube:

Charles Cornell has also recorded similar versions of Jingle Bells and Row, Row, Row Your Boat, among others, which you can watch on YouTube.

And now the lyrics (just in case you’re checking in from another planet and have never heard this song before)!!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday, dear Jimmy
(or whoever’s birthday it is)
Happy Birthday to you!

OK, we all sing it but does anyone know the history of this song? Neither did I until I did research for this post. It all started in a kindergarten class…

Patty Hill was a kindergarten principal in 1893 in Louisville, Kentucky and her sister Mildred was a pianist and composer. The sisters used Good Morning to All as an easy song that kindergartners could sing and remember, and it was sung every morning at the beginning of class. When it was a child’s birthday, they used the same melody, but made it into a birthday song.

The song was attributed to the Hill sisters, but like many folk songs, no one really knows for sure who composed it. The combination of the melody with the birthday lyrics first appeared in print in 1912.  It did not have a copyright until 1935, when the Summy Company registered a copyright attributing the song to different authors. The Hills did, however, copyright Good Morning to All.

As the birthday song’s popularity expanded, the Hill sisters began to file suits against its unlicensed use, including  Irving Berlin and Moss Hart, who allegedly used the song in a Broadway musical, The Band Wagon.

In 1988, Warner/Chappell purchased the Summy Company and with it, the copyright, for $25 million. The song’s value was estimated at $5 million! Warner Bros. claimed that the United States copyright would not expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are illegal unless royalties are paid. (Who knew??) In February 2010, the royalty for a single use was US$700. (Wow, a very expensive birthday party for your kid if you had to pay royalties for using the song  in the privacy of your own home!) Still, by one estimate, Happy Birthday is the highest-earning song in history. In one example, Disney had to pay Warner Bros. $5,000 to use the song in a parade.

The copyright status of the song began to get more notice with the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the act in its decision Eldred vs. Ashcroft. Justice Stephen Breyer specifically mentioned the birthday song in his dissenting opinion.

Filmmakers and lawyers began to organize in opposition to Warner’s copyright, claiming that the song should be in the public domain. In 2010, a law professor named Robert Brauneis extensively researched the song and came to the conclusion that it almost certainly was not under copyright. In 2015, a federal judge declared that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim was invalid, ruling that the copyright registration applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song and not to its lyrics and melody. In 2016, Warner/Chappell settled for $14 million, and the court ruled that Happy Birthday was now in the public domain. (Whew!!! I’m so relieved we’re finally off the hook when we celebrate the birthdays of our friends and family!)

I used two sources for this post:
Wikipedia, Happy Birthday to You
The Contentious History of the Happy Birthday Song

*I was going to choose Birthday by the Beatles but its history wasn’t interesting and I figured other people would choose it.

One thought on “Song Lyrics Sunday: Happy Birthday

  1. It seems like we are only off the hook if we don’t use the piano arrangement. I knew that Happy Birthday was the most recognized song because I did a post on song ‘Oh My Darling Clementine’ and I discovered that it was #2 behind happy Birthday, but I learned a lot from what you wrote. Nice write-up Katy.

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