Happy Birthday, Like It or Not

The song that we all know yet few of us love and even fewer can sing

| November-December 2010

  • Happy Birthday Image

    Matt Mignanelli / www.mattmignanelli.com

  • Happy Birthday Image

Wherever you go, it’s the same song.

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

“Happy Birthday to You” may be the modern world’s greatest hit, even the biggest hit ever—it’s hard to say. In the English-speaking world, we sing it more than any other song. It has also been translated into Finnish, French, Cantonese, and Arabic, among other languages. The Happy Birthday song is the song that ties us together more than any other; it is our universal bond.

“Happy Birthday to You” 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.

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.

“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.”