Birthday Song History: Why do we sing the “Happy Birthday to you” song on birthdays?

cats singing Happy Birthday to yooouuuuu.... card

The Happy Birthday song is one of the most widely sung songs in the world. But when did the tradition of singing this merry tune begin?

The answer is around the late 1890s to early 1900s, but the story is not quite a simple one…

Before its lyrics were rewritten, originally, the Happy Birthday song was called “Good Morning to all”. Instead of the words “Happy birthday to you.. Happy birthday dear [name]”, the original lyrics where actually:

“Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.”

This song is said to have been composed by two Kentucky-born sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill, and it was first published in “Song Stories for the Kindergarten” in 1893.

It is unclear exactly how it evolved into a birthday song, but people have speculated that perhaps some of the children who had been taught the “Good morning to all” song, used the tune, creatively altering the lyrics to the familiar “Happy Birthday” ones for birthday parties. In any case, 30 years passed since the song’s tune with its original lyrics was first recorded. In 1924, the new birthday lyrics were seen for the first time in songbook form in a book written by Robert H. Coleman, and in 1933 he republished the song in his book “The American Hymnal”, under the new title “Happy Birthday”.

Happy Birthday TWO EWE! card

Via birthday parties, word of mouth, public performances and songbooks, the Happy Birthday song quickly spread far and wide, and by 1933 it had already become established as the official Birthday song in many households.

It is interesting to note that had the original song never been changed by the creative minds of others, it would have retained it’s “good morning” lyrics and it is highly questionable whether it would ever have received as wide a dissemination as it did.

One little hiccup in this happy tale of a song’s success was that unfortunately, when the Happy Birthday song become increasingly popular in the 1930s, it was circulated without any credit to the Hill sisters. This led to a big copyright case which eventually ruled in favor of the Hill sisters, making it illegal to commercially perform the Happy Birthday song without paying royalties to the sisters and their publisher. To this day, this copyright law stands, and according to American law the song will only officially pass into public domain in 2030, whilst in the EU, the copyright is set to expire after the 31st of December, 2016.

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