It’s Your Birthday

So you know what's coming...

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Wherever you go, it’s the same song.

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear (name)
Happy birthday to you!

Today has the possibility to be many things: a day of triumph, a day of mourning, a judgment day, a holiday. But we know with certainty that, for all the things today is, it is also a birthday. Which means that today is an occasion for the Happy Birthday song. You may, and likely will, hear it, today. In a bar after work: the Happy Birthday song. At the zoo: the Birthday Song. At school: Birthday. In prison: Birthday song. In the English-speaking world, we sing “Happy Birthday to You” more than any other song. It has also been translated into Finnish, French, Cantonese, Arabic — “Happy Birthday to You” is an international hit. It may be the modern world’s greatest hit. Maybe the greatest hit ever; it’s hard to say. The Happy Birthday song is the song that ties us together more than any other. The Happy Birthday song is our universal bond.

A century after the Happy Birthday song came to be, we have plenty of other birthday-themed songs. There are pop songs like the ubiquitous “Birthday” by the Beatles, and “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder. There are mysterious birthday songs (“Birthday” by the Sugarcubes), cynical birthday songs (“Unhappy Birthday” by the Smiths), songs about birthday intercourse (“Birthday Sex” by Jeremih), and birthday abortions (“Happy Birthday” by Flipsyde). There are the unavoidable parodies in which we use the “Happy Birthday To You” melody to accuse each other of smelling/acting like a monkey and/or living in a zoo. A German lampoon turns sincere birthday wishes into “marmalade in your shoe, apricot in your pants,” and something unmentionable about a bratwurst. (Happy birthday to you / Marmelade im Schuh / Aprikose in der Hose / Und eine Bratwurst dazu).

These are songs about birthdays, but they are not birthday songs. And they are not the Happy Birthday song.

“Happy Birthday to You” is not an accidental success. It is not a traditional song nor did it appear ex nihilo. It originated with the Hill sisters, Patty and Mildred, and was first sung in a kindergarten classroom in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 19th century, back when kindergarten was a social experiment. Patty Smith Hill was a leader in America’s Progressive education movement and some credit her with developing the kindergarten we have today. Patty studied with John Dewey — high priest of American Pragmatism — at the University of Chicago, and completed an illustrious career as professor emeritus at Columbia University. But she started in Louisville, convinced of the importance of an early childhood education that was interactive, social, democratic, and free of cost.

When Patty wrote the lyrics for “Good Morning to All” (which later became the structure for “Happy Birthday to You”)—“Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all” — she did so deliberately and for the sake of children. When she and Mildred began writing kids’ songs together in 1889, the goal was to develop music that was easy to learn and perform. “When my sister Mildred and I began the writing of these songs we had two motives,” Patty said years later. “One was to provide good music for children. The second was to adapt the music to the little child’s limited ability to sing music of a complicated order.” (The circumstances under which “Good Morning to All” became “Happy Birthday to You” are widely debated. That the Hill sisters’ efforts set the stage for what would transform into the Happy Birthday song as we know it is not). It is a rare song that can be heard once and repeated by the majority of its learners. That “Happy Birthday to You” is a short quatrain adds to its memorability, and its lyrical repetition even more so: title / title / title, (address) / title. Even if you forget to sing “Happy birthday to you” in the second line, you will probably get it by the third, and almost assuredly by the fourth. The very next time a birthday rolls around you are set.

Lyrically, the Happy Birthday song’s simplicity is also part of its depth. The Happy Birthday song is free of value judgments. It doesn’t have an opinion about birthdays, as so many of us do. It makes no political or religious claims. There is a birthday, it says. The birthday belongs to a specific person, it says. It doesn’t claim that birthdays ought to be happy or otherwise, despite what you may read in the title. The Happy Birthday song is a wish. A wish for a happy birthday. To you.

Older sister Mildred Hill — an accomplished musician, composer, and ethnomusicologist — cooked up the tune for what would become the Happy Birthday song. The music for “Happy Birthday to You” matches the lyrics in simplicity, with just enough variation to make it interesting to sing. (Imagine, for a moment, music that rigorously followed the lyric pattern. Better still, don’t imagine — try singing “Happy Birthday to You” only sing each line with the same melody as the first and you’ll see how easily a “child-like” sound can turn dirgy and insane.) Mildred specialized, it’s told, in “Negro spirituals” and was well versed in the history of African-American music. Yet, despite some expert attempts to connect “Happy Birthday to You” directly to the spiritual, rhythmically the song appears to have little in common with the musical form. “Happy Birthday to You” does not seem to have any rhythm at all, on the face of it. It is decidedly unfunky. Still, every memorable song has some dancing built into it, and the Happy Birthday song does too. I’ll show you. Stand for a moment, and perform a box step (1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2 3…), and as you do, sing “Happy Birthday to You.” Maybe you never realized it, but inside the Happy Birthday song is a waltz, reminiscent of the “Blue Danube Waltz.” You can alternate singing the two as you dance to get a better sense of their similarity. There’s a latent lilt beneath the repetitive surface of the Happy Birthday song. Perhaps we should dance more when singing it.

The memorable, artless clarity of the Happy Birthday song is the essence of its genius. So with all its deliberate simplicity, it’s funny that the Happy Birthday song is a little bit hard to sing. We’ve all experienced this. As the end of each phrase gets progressively higher, you are, average singer, taken outside your comfortable vocal range, so that by the time you get to the third “birthday” (and it’s the “birth” note that’s the biggest problem) you’re practically in eunuch territory. Luckily, this high note happens quickly and only once so you can jump down from it safely and finish the song within the more gentle territory of the second line. (As opposed to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance, a virtuoso song that nobody sings, a high-note holocaust which forces you to start really high from the get-go and keep singing higher and higher until you miraculously finish or implode.)

We might think of this as the great flaw in “Happy Birthday to You.”  To be fair, though, the “birth” note is not a problem inherent in the song. It’s starting “Happy Birthday to You” in a key that is too high which spells disaster. But here’s the thing: Because the song is always sung spontaneously, by a random group with (usually) uneven musical abilities, the key is always too high. The distance between the lowest note in the Happy Birthday song and the highest is eight steps and they happen, in that third line, right next to each other. That’s a whole octave leap. I’ve guesstimated that .0001 percent of the world’s population can make this octave leap. And yet we all sing it, time and again, debasing ourselves. Why? Because it’s funny. Every time. If you have Pavarotti in your gang, it makes no difference. “Happy Birthday to You” makes the collective sound terrible and, in doing so, makes everyone laugh. I’ve decided that the octave leap, the most curious part of the Happy Birthday song, is its finest element. “Happy Birthday to You” is disarming. It levels us.

In “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song,” Robert Brauneis makes the nice point that “Happy Birthday to You” is one of the few songs of the last century passed down through an oral tradition, learned through live performances in family or community settings. The fact that “Happy Birthday to You” is sung everywhere makes us take it for granted. But because it can be sung anywhere (and by anyone) — needing no special effects or soundstage or rehearsal — it is quintessentially egalitarian, and therefore, it’s the song that belongs to us all. No wonder “Happy Birthday to You” lurks in all corners of the globe, in all corners of our daily experience. It is a form of dormant, shared information we know as well as we know our own names, that can be jostled awake at any moment. “Happy Birthday to You” is unpretentious and truthful, classless and ageless, secular and silly.

It is positively humiliating to sit in some eatery, with a crappy piece of candlelit cake before you, surrounded by friends and waiters and fellow diners bellowing out this song of songs at top volume with no care for their pride or yours. And, what would today, a birthday, be without it? • 19 July 2010

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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