So you’re sitting in your favorite chain restaurant and suddenly the wait staff gathers and begins to follow an employee holding a brownie sundae with a candle in it. They surround a nearby table and begin to sing a little ditty that proclaims that it’s somebody’s birthday. The tune is unfamiliar. Sometimes it’s not a tune at all but sounds instead like a junior high cheer. What gives? Why don’t these people just sing the Happy Birthday song?
Two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill are responsible for our traditional birthday song. Mildred was the oldest, born June 27th, 1859. Patty came along almost 9 years later on March 27th, 1868. (There’s a 3rd sister in the story but we’ll get to Jessica later).
The Hill sisters grew up in Kentucky. Their parents encouraged education and both girls were college graduates. Mildred did some pre-school and Sunday school teaching but her real love was music. She composed songs, played the organ, and was a musical scholar. She was especially interested in Negro spirituals.
Patty was a preschool teacher but is best known as one of the founders of the Progressive movement in education. She also was one of the creators of the Institute of Child Welfare Research at Columbia University.
In 1893, the two women were working at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School where Patty was the principal. That year Mildred composed a little tune for the teachers to use. Patty came up with some lyrics. The song was called “Good Morning to All” and first was meant to be used as a greeting for teachers to sing at the beginning of the day:
Good morning to you
Good morning to you
Good morning, dear children
Good morning to all.
After a while, teachers figured it would be a lot nicer if the kids sang to them and the third and fourth lines were changed:
Good morning, dear teacher,
Good morning to you.
The title of the tune was altered as well to “Good Morning to You.”
In 1924, songbook editor Robert H. Coleman published the music and lyrics but also included the Happy Birthday words we know today. No one knows who came up with the birthday variation, however. Within a decade the birthday song was sung on the radio and then in movies.
Here’s where the third sister comes in. Jessica Hill believed her older sisters were getting cheated. In 1935 Jessica worked with a Chicago music publisher to print and copyright the birthday song. From then on, every time the song was performed in a public place, the Hills were due some revenue. (Mildred was already dead but Patty got a few good years of royalties).
According to the laws of the time, the copyright would exist for 28 years. It could be renewed for an additional 28 years. Theoretically, we should have been able to start singing the song for free in 1991. But the new copyright laws of 1976 gave the owners protection for 75 years from its pub date. Another new law in 1998 added an additional 20 years. Which brings us to 2030. The laws permit the song to be sung in private homes, etc. but not in public places.
So, that’s why you have to put up with the restaurant variations.
Happy birthday week to Elise Dubois and Becky Herrick. I’d sing to you, but…