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Who owns the song Happy Birthday to You?

The grave of Mildred and Patty Hill
The grave of Mildred and Patty Hill

Happy Birthday to You, perhaps not surprisingly, is consistently one of our top five pieces here on 8notes. We have versions for 50 instruments as well as a cool Happy Jazzy Birthday arrangement by composer and 8notes founder David Bruce. Whilst the piece may seem familiar, however, its history is full of surprises and even the occasion whiff of controversy...

It was not originally called ‘Happy Birthday to You’

The song originated in the 19th century. It was written by pianist and composer Mildred Hill with her sister Patty, who was a kindergarten teacher. The song was a originally a greeting song with the lyrics ‘Good Morning to All’ that would be sung by children at the beginning of the day. A version with the more familiar lyrics did not appear until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Copyright controversy

Though it feels like a song that belongs to everyone, it was in copyright until very recently, making it a nice little earner for its owners, who were able to charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single performance of it. This explains why the work, though widely performed informally for birthdays, for many years was not so frequently used in films and on TV.

The copyright, which was made in 1935, did not, however, take into account that the original tune was written much earlier and the words of unknown origin, instead wrongly crediting two later authors. This led to a U.S. federal judge ruling it invalid in 2016, releasing the song once and for all into the public domain.

Happily this means the song now truly belongs to us all to use in any way we see fit.

Some think the world would be better without it

Renowned Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer made this caustic analysis of the birthday song in 2017, recomposing it and ‘improving’ it. See what you think….

(We still like the original version!)

It’s not the only birthday song

In the English speaking world ’Happy Birthday to You’ sometimes seems like the only birthday song. But it is not quite so ubiquitous as you might think. In Belgium and the Netherlands it is more common to sing Lang zal ze/hij leven’, in Serbia RođendanskaJa, må han/hon leva (which is similar to 'Lang zal ze leven'), in Mexico Las Mañanitas and in Poland Sto lat (wishing you 100 years of life). There are many other regional birthday songs.

Happy birthday in space

In 1969, astronauts on Apollo 9 sang ‘Happy Birthday to You’ to mark the 45 birthday of Flight Operations Director Chris Kraft. The Guinness Book of Records credited this as being the first performance of a song from outer space.

Variations, pranks and great performances

There are some familiar variations of Happy Birthday, including the reasonably innocent (though progressively hurtful as one ages) ‘How Old Are you Now?’, always sung as a second verse. There is also the less charming:

’Happy Birthday to You

Squashed tomatoes and stew,
bread and butter in the gutter,

Happy Birthday to You.’

Or positively insulting:

‘Happy Birthday to You
You live in a zoo

You look like a monkey

And you smell like one too.’

Happy birthday has also been used a number of times to prank conductors on the occasion of their birthdays. Here’s Sir Andrew Davies getting the full treatment by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of his 75th:

Others, including Zubin Mehta and Victor Borge have performed variations on the tune in the style of different composers. Here’s one in the style of Beethoven, Chopin Brahms, Bach and Mozart by Nicole Pesce (who was inspired by Borge’s version):

And these have been some great performances. Perhaps the most famous of all was Marilyn Monroe’s to John F Kennedy in 1962:

Whatever instrument you play, and whether you need the classic or our exclusive jazzy version, be sure to visit the next time it’s someone’s birthday!

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