SRU professor ponders ‘Happy Birthday to You’ on anniversary of song composer’s birthday
Mildred Hill, the composer of the song “Happy Birthday to You,” was born on this date, June 27, in 1859.
June 27, 2019
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — When you sing "Happy Birthday to You" to celebrate someone on their special day, you have Mildred Hill to thank. And today would've been Hill's special day. The composer of "Happy Birthday to You," the world's most often sung tune, was born 160 years ago today, June 27, 1859.
While Cassandra Eisenreich, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of music, has led various programs and initiatives teaching music to children, she admits she's never taught or learned "Happy Birthday to You" in a formal setting.
"The tune and the lyrics have been passed down from generation to generation," Eisenreich said. "It's one of those songs that everyone knows. We pick up the song after hearing it multiple times and being immersed in a culture where it is repeated for anyone and everyone celebrating a birthday."
The song's melody was originally composed by Hill for kindergarten students in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1890s. Hill's sister, Patty, was a teacher who wrote lyrics for a song, "Good Morning to All," that she taught to her students using Hill's melody. "Good Morning to All" evolved into other lyrical iterations, including "Happy Birthday to You." The Hills published a book of sheet music in 1893 but they never published or copyrighted the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You."
The music and lyrics are in public domain. The U.S. federal court ruled in 2016 that a copyright claim was invalid. "Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print in 1912, four years before Mildred Hill died. The song grew in popularity throughout the 1930s without much credit given to the Hill sisters. Patty Hill passed away in 1946.
The song, which has been translated into at least 18 languages, was cited in 1998 by Guinness World Records as the most recognized song in the English language. With little prompting or rehearsing, the song is often sung at birthday parties despite its difficulty.
"The song is not that easy to sing," Eisenreich said. "It has some larger interval jumps that can be tricky, especially for young voices."
"Happy Birthday to You" performances have ranged from memorable public renditions, like Marilyn Monroe singing to U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1962, to amateur crooners gathering around cubicles and restaurant tables across the country to celebrate a coworker's aging with a vocal "gift."
But Eisenreich said the gesture of song is special no matter people's singing abilities, and "Happy Birthday to You" is the only song that coincides with one of the most cherished memories among families and friends.
"In my opinion, every time I hear the song, it is memorable," Eisenreich said. "It's a beautiful thing to celebrate the day someone was born. Taking a moment to join in the celebration of an individual being alive, that is always special, meaningful and beautiful. I call all of my closest friends and family members and sing them the full song when it is their birthday. My parents continue to do that every time my birthday rolls around and it always makes me feel loved. I just do what they've always done. Wishing someone a happy birthday is a delightful gesture but singing ... what could be better?"
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