It is the world’s most well-known and popular song. It has been sung hundreds of millions of times each year for over three-quarters of a century. It has been heard in outer space, at baseball stadiums, in movies and in domiciles from the White House to the most remote backwoods shack in Mississippi. It has been wired in to millions of music boxes, greeting cards, watches, toys, games and other tune-playing products. And it is the only song in the English language guaranteed to make people of all ages smile and sing along. The song, of course, is “Happy Birthday to You.”
This amazingly sturdy four-line ditty began its life in 1893. Written by two sisters from Kentucky, Mildred and Patty Hill, it was originally entitled “Good Morning to All,” and intended as a classroom greeting from teachers to students:
Good morning to you
Good morning to you
Good morning, dear children
Good morning to all.
Patty Hill was a nursery school and kindergarten teacher (she would later develop “Patty Hill blocks,” a popular toy for children). Her older sister Mildred, who was also a teacher for a time, went on to become a noted composer, organist and music scholar, with a specialty in Negro spirituals. Mildred came up with the melody for “Good Morning to All.” Patty added the words.
The Hills’ modest tune (a range of six notes, repetitive lyric and an average running time of about 12 seconds) was first published in 1893 as part of a songbook, Song Stories for the Kindergarten. Over the next 30 years it spread, evolving first into a greeting for students to sing to their teachers, rather than vice-versa. Then it became the more generic “Good Morning to You,” with the name of whomever the song was being sung to inserted in the third line. This minor but significant change brought it a little closer to its final version.
But here’s where the mystery is: To this day, no one knows for sure who wrote the new words to Mildred Hill’s melody, or exactly when it happened. “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in a songbook in 1924, edited by Robert H. Coleman. The words were presented as an alternate second stanza to “Good Morning to You” (perhaps Coleman was the uncredited lyricist?). Aided by the advent of radio and sound movies, this new stanza became hugely popular and soon overshadowed the original lyric. By the mid-’30s, the celebratory tune had appeared in several films and a Broadway musical, and had been used for Western Union’s first singing telegram. It was so widely heard and sung that many assumed it was public domain.
When the melody showed up in the Irving Berlin musical As Thousands Cheer, uncredited and uncompensated, a third Hill sister, Jessica, filed suit. In court she demonstrated the obvious link between “Happy Birthday to You” and “Good Morning to All,” securing a copyright for her sisters. Unfortunately Mildred was too late to benefit, having died in 1916.
Jessica Hill took her sisters’ tune to a Chicago-based publisher, Clayton F. Summy Co., who officially published and copyrighted it in 1935. A few years later, Summy’s company was bought out by a New York accountant, John Sengstack, who renamed it Birch Tree Ltd. They held on to the publishing for “Happy Birthday” until 1988, when Warner-Chappell, the largest music publisher in the world, purchased Birch Tree for $25 million. Today the song brings in about $2 million in royalties annually, with proceeds split between Warner-Chappell and the Hill Foundation. (Both sisters died unmarried and childless, so the money has presumably been going to charity or to nephew Archibald Hill, ever since Patty Hill passed away in 1946.)
Because the song is published and copyrighted, it raises the question: When we gather around the cake to croon “Happy Birthday to You,” are we all infringing on copyright law? It depends. When the song is being sung for profit—as in movies, TV shows and public performances—then royalties are certainly due. But ASCAP, which enforces the performance rights for “Happy Birthday to You,” has also used it as a lever to force the purchase of performance licenses by venues that would otherwise have no need to purchase one. The law says that singing the song in a public place for a birthday party constitutes a performance. Because of this, ASCAP is able to charge licensing fees to restaurants that otherwise don’t have a live music policy and to kids’ summer camps where the song is sung.
The journey of “Happy Birthday to You” is unique in the history of popular song—from the simple tune conceived as a useful teaching aid to the standard that will most likely outlast even the best of Tin Pan Alley masters such as Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart. Whatever sci-fi developments and musical trends the future may bring, you can bet that no one will ever improve on the Hill sisters’ catchy, old-fashioned tune. As the song celebrates its 118th birthday, we can add the familiar coda, “… and many more.”
—by Bill DeMain