It’s one of the most famous songs ever written — a ditty that has been the backdrop to birthday celebrations for nearly a century. Now, all of a sudden, that song, “Happy Birthday to You,” is gaining a second identity as the accompaniment to a hand-washing ritual in this global Coronavirus pandemic.
“Happy Birthday to You” owes its current prominence to two simple facts: just about everyone knows it by heart and it takes about 10 seconds to sing. So if someone sings it twice, that’s just about what experts recommend for a thorough hand-washing in these anxious times.
This has led to some strained attempts at humor, as people try to defuse the tension we’re all feeling. Mark Ronson tweeted: “Been washing my hands for 7 minutes singing ‘happy birthday’ by @StevieWonder x2. I didn’t know they meant the ‘other’ birthday song… smh.”
“Happy Birthday to You” was first published in 1893 in a book titled Song Stories for the Kindergarten. The song was then titled “Good Morning to All,” with the same melody we all know today.
The song was written by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Smith Hill. Patty wrote the lyrics to “Good Morning to All” while serving as the principal of a kindergarten in Louisville, Ky., where Mildred was a teacher. The sisters copyrighted their song in October 1893. (Smart move.)
There are various accounts of how “Good Morning to All” morphed into “Happy Birthday to You.” According to the one published on the Songwriters Hall of Fame website, in March 1924, the sisters’ song appeared without authorization in a songbook edited by Robert H. Coleman. In the songbook, Coleman used the original title and first stanza lyrics but altered the second stanza’s opening line to read “Happy Birthday to You.” Thus, through Coleman, the sisters’ line “Good morning dear children” became “Happy birthday dear (name).”
During the next decade, the song was published several times, each time with minor alterations to the lyrics. By 1933, the widely accepted title was “Happy Birthday to You.” Mildred died in 1916 at age 57, years before the tune became famous as “Happy Birthday to You.” Patty died in 1946 at age 78, having lived to see that she and her sister had started a worldwide birthday tradition.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday to You” is one of the most recognized pieces of music in the English language, along with the New Year’s Eve perennial “Auld Lang Syne” and another celebration anthem, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
“Happy Birthday to You” received the Towering Song Award at the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame induction and awards dinner in 1996. It’s one of several recipients of that award that has become so much a part of our lives that they have taken on the force of an anthem. Others include “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” (1998), one of the most beloved holiday songs; “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (2002), one of the oldest and most famous patriotic anthems; “When the Saints Go Marching In” (2006), an iconic anthem of Mardi Gras celebrations; “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (2008), an anthem for what was once called America’s favorite pastime; and “A Change Is Gonna Come” (2013), an anthem of the civil rights struggle.
Marilyn Monroe performed what may be the most famous rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” at an event at Madison Square Garden celebrating President John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday in May 1962. Monroe sang a smoldering version of the song, which prompted JFK to quip, “I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”
There are many other birthday songs, though none have become as universally famous as “Happy Birthday to You.” The R&B group The Tune Weavers had a No. 5 hit on the Top 100 (a precursor to the Hot 100) in 1957 with “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby.” Neil Sedaka‘s “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” reached No. 6 on the Hot 100 in 1962. The Beatles recorded “Birthday” for their 1968 album The Beatles (often called The White Album). Conway Twitty‘s “Happy Birthday Darlin'” was a No. 1 hit on what was then called Hot Country Singles in 1979. Stevie Wonder wrote and recorded “Happy Birthday” for his 1980 album Hotter Than July to help the ultimately successful campaign to get Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday declared a national holiday.