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The Story Behind the Song "Happy Birthday to You"

"Happy Birthday (to You)": The Charm of Birthday Celebrations

"Happy Birthday to You," according to Guinness World Records, is considered the most popular song in the English language. Being translated into at least 18 languages, it has been popularized all over the world. Traditionally, it is sung for the birthday person by the other guests celebrating the occasion. The melody used in this song dates back to the late 19th century, and it was utilized for the song "Good Morning to All."

Birthday cake with candles

Although there is controversy regarding its origin, it is generally attributed to two sisters - Patty and Mildred J. Hill. While teaching at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, Mildred composed the melody and Patty developed the lyrics. Later on, it was published in Song Stories for the Kindergarten in 1893. Initially, it was meant to be sung by the teacher to the class each morning. After its publication, the trend got changed when children started to sing this as a welcoming song for their teachers. Thus, the word "children" popularly got replaced by "teacher." Consequently, the song morphed into “Good Morning to You.”

In 1924, “Good Morning to All” along with its alternative verse was published in a book. Robert H. Coleman edited it and this was produced as an alternative to the original “Good Morning to You.” Gradually, the “Happy Birthday” song started to overshadow its earlier version. Following its immense popularity, it appeared in the Broadway show Band Wagon in 1931, and after a couple of years became a "singing telegram" for Western Union.

Mildred and Patty's sister, Jessica Hill voiced her claims for the use of the "Good Morning to You" melody in Happy Birthday to You. Eventually, she was able to establish legal copyright for her sisters with regard to the song with the help of Clayton F. Summy Company in 1935. Yet, as the court concluded, the copyrights involved only the melody, not the lyrics. When Warner/Chappell procured the rights from Summy in 1988, they claimed to hold the copyright until 2030. However, in 2015, it was established in the court that the registration only covered a specific piano version instead of the melody and lyrics. Thus, Warner/Chappell, after being sued earlier, decided to settle the case for $14 million in 2016. Hence, the court ruled that the song would remain in public domain and the performances wouldn’t be subjected to royalties or restrictions.

According to Kembrew McLeod, there was a high chance that Mildred and Patty had plagiarized the ideas for the melody and lyrics from other musical pieces of the 19th century such as "Good Night to You All” and many other greeting songs. On the other hand, people like Robert Brauneis, an American law professor, disagree with such notion.

Among the most famous renditions of Happy Birthday to You, two instances made significant impressions. The 1962 birthday concert of President Kennedy where Marilyn Monroe sang it, immortalizing the song. Afterward, the song had a remarkable broadcast in 1969, when the crew of the orbiting Apollo 9 sang this song to NASA director Christopher Kraft. Although the “Happy Birthday” song has lyrical repetition and only four short musical phrases, it had a profound cultural impact to the world.



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