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Happy Birthday to You, the History and Information

Enjoying those odd, interesting bits of knowledge that offer entertainment as well as the possible glimpse into part of our humanity. Enjoy!


Happy Birthday To You, A Recent Song

"Happy Birthday to You," is one of the most sung songs in the world, if not the most sung. It is a song that I personally took for granted until watching a documentary on the Victorian age which stated the song wasn't even created until 1924 and I was startled and needed to verify this.

I was surprised to find out that there is more to the song's story than it was simply written much more recently than I had assumed. Although, I could not find any documents that stated 1924. What I did find is intriguing though.

The Hill Sisters

There were three Hill sisters, Mildred, Patty, and Jessica. All will contribute to the story of Happy Birthday to You (HBTY) to varying degrees. Let's look at the sisters and then we will delve more into the beginnings of HBTY.

Mildred Hill was the oldest sister born June 27, 1859, and learned to play the piano from her father, Calvin Cody, and Adolf Weidig. Mildred performed, taught, and studied what during her time was termed, "Negro Spirituals." I believed they are termed "African American Spirituals" currently. It appears that Mildred was not a teacher as some sites state, but rather she was a musician and helped her sister.

What struck me about this was I considered this to be a time to have open racism and thought this to be very progressive for her time. Mildred believed that these spirituals would be the basis for a new American style of music. Mildred would compose the melody for "Good Morning to All," that her younger sister would use in school.

Patty Hill was another progressive woman that created a more kid-friendly school. Going against the grain of the structured scheduling of the Friedrich Froebel kindergarten and stressed the creativity and natural instinct of the children more to become more interactive with the kids.

This theory turned into an experiment when Patty began working at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School. Mildred and Patty would make songs that were easily remembered and interactive with the kids, adapting songs for the children to remember. "Good Morning to All," was one of these songs that began the day and started the interactions with the children. In 1893, Patty and Mildred would be recognized for their work in the Progressive Education Program at the World Fair in Chicago, Illinois. Patty did have a passion for teaching for quite a long time, she would go to the Grimes Plantation and teach the slaves to read and write.

Jessica Hill was the youngest of these three sisters. By most accounts, the only association that could be found between Jessica was not with the song, "Good Morning to All," but rather with "Happy Birthday to You," specifically. One of the rumors about HBTY is that Jessica changed the lyrics to, "Good Morning to You".

Jessica Hill was the person who gave permission to the Clayton F. Summy Company to pair the "Good Morning to All" melody with the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You" this occurred in 1935. This being necessary because "Good Morning to All" was copyrighted when the sisters published Song Stories for the Kindergarten in 1894 and Jessica was one of the owners of the copyright.


Good Morning to Happy Birthday

We know that "Good Morning to All" was published and copyrighted in 1893. What we do not know is when the lyrics for "Happy Birthday to You" were created or finalized. There was sheet music found for "Good Morning to All" that had "Happy Birthday to You" written across the top of the paper but the lyrics were not written. Jessica did testify that the sisters did sing HBTY and many other versions as well. There is one rumor that Patty changed the lyrics for student birthdays to make it a special occasion for the students on their birthday.

In 1901, Edith Goodyear Alger's published a book titled A Primer of Work and Play contained the wording "A happy birthday to you," in a verse that is very similar to the accepted HBTY song. This was a poem and was not sung, but the wording is very similar.

There were reportedly around twelve versions of HBTY that are used from 1901 until 1924 when the first publication can be cited. The publication that printed the song's lyrics was Robert H. Coleman's Harvest Songs.

The Clayton F. Summy Company stated that two hired contractors wrote the song for them. The two workers they claimed wrote the song were Preston Ware Orem on piano and R.R. Forman for the lyrics. This was in 1935 and the reason for applying for copyright was that the company was publishing a book titled The Beginners Book of Songs. This version does contain an extra verse as well.


Sing it, For a Fee or Free

The reality of what happened was that companies made money on HBTY from about 1934 through most of 2015 when the song was used for commercial or the purpose of profit through licensing fees. What we find out is that, there was actually no copyright on the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You" because no one had ever stepped forward to claim them as they are. Here is a more in-depth look at what happened though.

The basis of the copyright of HBTY begins in 1894 with the song "Good Morning to All". The melody of this song is the basis for HBTY and this was the publication year for the collection of songs by the Hill sisters, published by the Clayton F. Summy Company. The sisters were known to adjust the lyrics for different occasions as well as make the songs easier for the children to remember.

Birthdays celebrations were growing in popularity and by the 1920's the "Happy Birthday to You" song was pretty popular and actually a standard. By this time, there were songbooks published with the melody of "Good Morning to All" and the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You".

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On July 28, 1933 an operator by the name of Lucille Lipps sang "Happy Birthday to You" as the first singing telegram for Western Union. The CEO of the company had put the order in for Rudy Vallee (Hubert Prior Vallée). Rudy was a singer, actor, radio host, and the original pop star. Rudy was not flattered by this, but rather called it a prank by the publicity people - in reality, it was the first singing telegram by Western Union. Western Union was sued over this because the licensing fee was not paid, but it was decided that Western Union did not have to pay it because even though it was for-profit - it was not performed in public.

In 1935, the Clayton F. Summy Company published and copyrighted the combination of "Good Morning to All" with "Happy Birthday to You". The difference is that this company received authorization from Jessica Hill to combine the melody which she was the copyright owner to with the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You". Jessica had renewed the copyright to "Good Morning to All" from when all three sisters had published Song Stories for the Kindergarten.

The Clayton F. Summy Company, based out of Chicago, was purchased sometime in the late 1930s by John F. Sengstack, a New York accountant, and renamed the company Birch Tree Ltd. Birch Tree Ltd. extended the copyright in 1962, and then the duration of copyrights was extended by Congress. The assumption was that the copyright for HBTY would end in 2030 because of these events.

In 1942, there was a lawsuit between the Hill sisters and the Clayton F. Summy Company that gave the rights to the lyrics of "Happy Birthday to You" to the Hill sisters and only the piano arrangement for the 1935 publication to the Clayton F. Summy Company. The ruling was simply because Jessica Hill had a statement that "Happy Birthday to You" was one of the variations of the song that the sisters sang and it was accepted.

There was an educational series titled Eyes on the Prize the began airing in 1987. This series is about the civil rights movement through the eyes of ordinary men and women of that time period. There is a birthday celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. where "Happy Birthday to You" is sung. The licensing fee was so high, that the series was never released on DVD and only released for educational purposes by PBS.

Warner/Chappel purchased Birch Tree Ltd. in 1988 for $25 million. One article from 1988 stated that HBTY brought in about $1 million a year and more recent articles generally state that in 2008 the song made about $2 million. Overall, since the copyright was supposed to be until 2030, this was a good purchase for Warner/Chappel.

There is a major lawsuit where a group of filmmakers and singers sued Warner/Chappel. The claim was that Warner/Chappel did not have the rights to the copyright for "Happy Birthday to You" and should not be collecting licensing fees for it. The case took until September 22, 2015 when the ruling stated that Warner/Chappel owned the rights to the specific piano piece and the extra verse of lyrics that was published in 1935 but not the lyrics as we know and sing them today. This was because there are publications that have the current lyrics from before 1935 and no one has ever stepped forward with evidence that they wrote the lyrics. Therefore, the song is public domain and can be used without paying a licensing fee.

Warner/Chappel settled and paid $14 million back from licensing fees that had been collected. But collecting licensing fees from 1988 through most of 2015 and using the lower amount of $1 million a year, that is $27 million. Subtract the $14 million from licensing fees that they were ordered to pay back, takes this down to $13 million made. And there were statements that even though Birch Tree Ltd. was purchased for $25 million, only $5 million was towards the "Happy Birthday to You" song. So Warner/Chappel still made at least $8 million from this one song, most likely.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Chris Samhain

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