Happy Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday and there was no great celebration, just a few cards and text messages and a chat with the kids.

The only birthday party I have been to this year was Bertie’s and as he was only one year old so, of course, it was neither raucous nor boozy. In a year from now, Bertie won’t remember it which may be his ambition from a birthday party when he gets into his twenties.

The importance of birthdays for young kids I understand. They change so much year to year it seems right to celebrate and not least it marks the sleepless nights and early morning effort of parents.

You may think that we have always been marking birthdays but not so.

The Romans started the practice but then only for men. The modern idea of a birthday celebration was a German idea bringing in both birthday cakes and candles; one for each year lived and another to symbolise the idea that you would live for another. They called it Kinderfeste and for once it wasn’t the Victorians, but earlier around the turn of the 19th century.

Anyway, move back 24 hours and I was in Lucinda’s kitchen and she and a bemused Bertie sang Happy Birthday. The chance is that almost certainly you will know both the tune and words. I can say that with some confidence because in 1988 the Guinness Book of Records claimed it to be the most recognised song in the English language. As it has also been translated into at least 18 other languages its appeal is much broader.

Although open to discussion the consensus is that it is based on a song written in 1893 by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill. Their little ditty, Morning to All, was meant to be sung by students before the start of school. Its words got modified and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s an interesting little song and you may be surprised to find that it appears in a special list that includes, White Christmas by Irving Berlin, Yesterday from Lennon and McCartney, Sting’s Every Breath You Take and Oh Pretty Woman written by Roy Orbison.

They are all among the top 10 royalty earning songs of all time and top of the list, the number one earning song is, drum roll please, Happy Birthday.

You may not even have realised that it was covered by copyright. The ownership of the song has changed hands a few times throughout the years. In 1990, Warner Chappell bought the rights for $15 million and overall it has brought in an estimated $50 million.

I doubt this worried Marilyn Monroe when she sang it to President Kennedy but the cost of using the song in a movie or on TV was up to $25,000. That explains, maybe, why you haven’t heard it too often in the movies

If you think you have never broken the law, then now is the time to recant. It was actually against the law to sing Happy Birthday in a large group of unrelated people such as at an office party.

I use the past tense because the copyright expired in the European Union on January 1, 2017. In the United States, a federal court ruled in 2016 that Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim was invalid and there was no other claim to copyright. Happy Birthday has joined For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow in the realm of public domain.

Anyway, to those who have sent me congratulatory messages I appreciate them all and feel free to break into song. At least you now know there is no royalty you have to pay.