Happy Birthday, Like It or Not

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Matt Mignanelli / www.mattmignanelli.com

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.”

It is a rare song that can be repeated by the majority of its learners after they have heard it only once. 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 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.

“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, 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 we’re 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 it is a little bit hard to sing. We’ve all experienced this. As the end of each phrase gets progressively higher, you, the average singer, are 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 that 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 the “birth” note as the great flaw in “Happy Birthday to You.”  To be fair, though, this is not a problem inherent in the song. The problem is starting in a key that’s 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 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 leap. And yet we all sing it, time and again, debasing ourselves. Why? Because it’s funny. Every time. If you have a 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 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 it 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, information 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 a birthday be without it?

Excerpted from The Smart Set (July 19, 2010), an independent online magazine supported by Drexel University that’s full of smart, vibrant writing on the arts, culture, science, global and national affairs, and many other topics. www.thesmartset.com

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