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Happy Birthday To You

Song: Happy Birthday To You

Songwriters: Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill (wrote the song Good morning to all on which Happy Birthday To You is based); Preston Ware Orem credited with Happy Birthday to You as we know it today.

For a song which is so much about good wishes, there's an awful lot of bad feeling about Happy Birthday To You. As much as the currently copyrighted version by Preston Ware Orem is accused of being a rip-off of the out-of-copyright Good morning to all by the Hill sisters, I have to say that the later version certainly brought a lot to the party, if you'll pardon the pun.

But first, let's stop and think: isn't it incredible that this little ditty is so enormously successful. Boy, if I could just write one of those! How Happy Birthday To You quite caught on the way it did is a mystery to me. But there are certainly some clues.

First of all, let's not forget that songs have accompanied rituals since pre-historic times. In our increasingly secular world, the coming-of-age ceremony of bringing out a birthday cake was just begging for a song to accompany it. Here Comes The Bride similarly accompanies a modern ritual, only most of us have more birthdays than weddings, so the odds were always going to be in favour of Happy Birthday To You.

Happy Birthday To You also has a neat trick up its sleeve – it's personalised for every performance: “Happy birthday, Mr President...” (if you ever get to be president). You don't have to read Dale Carnegie to know that we all love the sound of our own name. How could it fail? Of course the modern recording songwriter trying to emulate this trick is going to run into trouble right there: how many versions would you have to record? Which brings me to another point: Happy Birthday To You just has to be performed live. Preferably by amateurs who haven't agreed on a key before they start.

Another old world aspect of Happy Birthday To You is that, in the short span of it's eight or so bars, it squeezes in a long pause (on “Mr President”, or whoever), and, invariably, a decelerando into the final cadence, all to good dramatic effect. And of course the pause is particularly important if the birthday boy is Jose-Santa-Maria-Diego-Felipe-Pablo-Miguel.

So is it truly a great song? Well, I confess, it probably wouldn't be one of my Desert Island Discs. But let's be honest, when it's my name on the cake, Happy Birthday To You rocks!


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