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The Origins of the Birthday Song

April 25, 2018

 

Does Wednesday come every week? Because it feels like it happens way more often and here we are back with another installment already.

 

This past week went rather quicker than normal because I celebrated a birthday! I was sung to no less than six times during the weekend and this got me thinking… where on earth did the birthday song come from?

 

There seems to be a bit of contention as to its true origins, but we do know that the music was originally composed in 1893 by Patty and Mildred Hill. The song was written for Patty’s Kindergarten class to sing and was originally titled Good Morning to All.

 

Where the lyrics for Happy Birthday came from seems to still be a bit of a mystery, but the song and words were officially printed together in a songbook published by a piano company in 1912. After that, the song was reprinted again in 1915 and again in 1924. It wasn’t until after the tune was used in two Broadway musicals that the Hill family took action.

 

In 1934, Patty and Mildred’s sister, Jessica, sued for the rights to the song and won. It was copyrighted by the Clayton F Summy Co with the Hill sisters credited as the sole composers. Eventually the Summy Co was purchased by a larger company called Birch Tree Ltd which was purchased decades later (1988 to be exact) by Warner Music, a branch of Warner Brothers.

 

Unfortunately, this acquisition meant WB demanded financial compensation for any public use of the song. Even Disney had to pay for the rights to use it in their movies and parades. WB admitted that over $2 million a year were collected during the time they owned the copyright. Theoretically, we weren’t even supposed to be singing Happy Birthday in a restaurant without forking over some money, but that’s all over now.

 

In 2015, a California judge ruled that Warner Brothers might have a claim to one particular arrangement of the song, but Happy Birthday as a whole was placed into the public domain for free use. Not only that, but WB reached a settlement with the court agreeing to pay back $14 million to those they had so unscrupulously charged.

 

Unless we invent time travel and go back to confirm with the Hill sisters where the lyrics really came from, we’ll never know who to thank for the most recognized song in the English language, but we should rejoice in the fact that we can now sing it everywhere and anywhere without having to fork over our birthday cash.

 

Thanks to everyone who sang to me this past weekend! If you let me know when your birthday is, I’ll call and sing to you too!

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