This week I am celebrating my 30th year of being a person! It definitely feels like a milestone birthday, and I am looking forward to cake, candles, and all the birthday things. And as someone who loves songs…it has had me thinking about the birthday song. I mean at this point, if you don’t have people sing “Happy Birthday to You” on your birthday, does your birthday even count? Obviously, you still become a year older no matter what…but the birthday song feels so intertwined with the birthday experience! So I did a little research, and want to share some things I have learned about the birthday song.
A little history…
Did you know that “Happy Birthday” aka “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language? Which probably isn’t too shocking, as you would likely expect people to join in if you started the song. It would be weirder if you walked into a room full of family and friends singing the song, and nobody knew the words! The crazy thing is that when “Happy Birthday to You” came out in print in 1912, there were no credits given. This is one of many reasons that there is still quite a bit of dispute regarding authorship, rights etc. Sisters Patty and Mildred Hill published the melody of what we recognize to be “Happy Birthday” but with different lyrics in their 1893 children’s songbook, with the song titled “Good Morning to All.” What we know as the happy birthday lyrics are referenced not as lyrics but as lines in a poem called “Roy’s Birthday” by Edith Goodyear Alger copyrighted in 1901. And in 1935, the Summy Company registered the song “Happy birthday to you” crediting Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R. R. Forman as the authors, and later sold the rights to Warner/Chappell Music. So, in terms of credit, it gets really messy!
And as much this song may feel like it belongs to everyone,“Happy Birthday” only very recently became public domain! Meaning that up until 2016 in the United States, if a TV show, movie, performer etc. wanted to sing or use the song “Happy Birthday” in any public capacity they would have to get permission and pay royalty fees in order to do so. This is why many TV shows commonly included “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” instead during birthday episodes, and why restaurants have created all of their clever birthday song renditions like “Happy happy birthday from all of us to you…we wish it was our birthday, so we could party too!” With the official “Happy Birthday” being pricey, over the years people have had to decide between paying fees for the official song, or getting creative with birthday singing in more public celebrations . Some estimate "Happy Birthday" to be the highest earning single song in history! It was only after a lawsuit starting in 2013, that new evidence eventually convinced a judge to rule that Warner/Chappell’s claim over the lyrics was invalid, leading to the song becoming public domain (meaning free for anyone to use) in June of 2016.
So, now the song “Happy Birthday” really does belong to everyone! You may have even noticed more shows, radio programs, and restaurants incorporating the actual song over the past few years, now that they can do so completely free of charge.
Well, it’s about time for me to eat some cake! "This is my birthday song...it isn't very long...HEY!"