Tomorrow, September 22, 2023, will mark the 8th anniversary of a federal judge's landmark decision that declared the song "Happy Birthday to You" to be in the public domain. That decision led to a subsequent settlement in which Warner/Chappell, the giant media corporation that claimed to have owned the copyright, agreed to repay, to the tune of $14 million, those who had licensed the song.
But, contrary to a rumor I just made up, Judge George H. King, did not admonish Warner/Chappell by declaring, "You look like a monkey and you smell like one too."
"Happy Birthday to You" undoubtedly is the most sung 10-second song in the USA.
This has led to some strained attempts at humor, as people try to defuse the tension we’re all feeling. Mark Ronson tweeted: “Been washing my hands for 7 minutes singing ‘happy birthday’ by @StevieWonder x2. I didn’t know they meant the ‘other’ birthday song… smh.”
The melody that everyone loves while someone brings a flaming cake to the table was written by a couple of sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill in Kentucky back in 1893.
The first version was titled "Good Morning to All," and was meant to be sung in the classroom. (Patty was the principal of the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, while Mildred was a teacher there.) This early version of the song, which didn't mention any birthdays, was published in Song Stories for the Kindergarten and Primary Schools a book written by the sisters. But, according to The Farmer's Almanac:
Nearly ten years after their first song book was published, the Hill sisters were invited to a neighbor’s birthday party. It was then that Patty changed the words of “Good Morning to All” to “Happy Birthday to You,” in an effort to make the occasion more festive. The song was the highlight of the party, and obviously caught on.
Sounds like some party!
Oklahoma City's beloved Ho Ho the Clown, about to
sing "Happy Birthday" to my brother, back in the
days when we weren't all afraid of clowns.
Billboard, however, noted that "There are various accounts of how `Good Morning to All' morphed into `Happy Birthday to You'."
The Songwriters Hall of Fame website says:
The sisters copyrighted their original song in October 1893 but years later in March of 1924, it appeared without authorization in a songbook edited by a Robert H. Coleman. In the book, Coleman used the original title and first stanza lyrics but altered the second stanza’s opening line to read, “Happy Birthday To You.” Thus, through Coleman, the sisters’ line “Good Morning dear children,” became “Happy Birthday dear (name).”
During the next decade, the song was published several times, each time with minor alterations in the lyrics. By 1933, the widely accepted title was “Happy Birthday To You.” When the song was soon being belted nightly in the Broadway musical, As Thousands Cheer, a third Hill sister, Jessica, tired of the ongoing theft of the melody and total lack of royalty payments, took the case to court.
And apparently she won. The tune was dropped from As Thousands Cheer, and, as the Songwriters Hall of Fame notes, "...Western Union and Postal Telegraph both ceased using the song in singing telegrams. A Broadway hit play with Helen Hayes, `Happy Birthday,' arranged for the star to speak the lyrics so the producers might avoid paying royalties to the authors."
The copyright saga of "Happy Birthday to You" serves as a great example of corporate greed. The publisher of the Hill sisters' Song Stories for the Kindergarten and Primary Schools was the Clayton F. Summy Company, which became the Summy-Birchard Company in 1957, and became a division of the Birch Tree Group in 1970, only to be gobbled up by Warner/Chappell in 1988.
But that lawsuit against Warner/Chappell, originally filed in 2013 by documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson returned the song to the people two years later.
Just a week after Nelson filed her suit in New York, a singer named Rupa Marya, singer with a band called Rupa & The April Fishes, filed a similar suit in California, where the cases were combined.
Marya told The Hollywood Reporter that a San Francisco audience had sung the song to her on her birthday in 2013. But... "When the band tried to add that live rendition to an album, she was hit with a lawyers demand for payment to license the song."
Here is Rupa, in the center, with her lawyers and others at the law firm singing the song they fought for:
Here is what is song has to be the most famous performance of this song. Marilyn took more than the mandatory 10 seconds. Nobody complained:
Kermit Ruffins does a version of "Happy Birthday to You," that features lyrics I first heard in elementary school:
For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook
And, oh yeah, today is my birthday. I guess
I've been hearing this song for 70 years now.