The Confusing History of “Happy Birthday”

“Happy Birthday To You” is so well-known, it’s considered the most recognized song in the English Language. But where did it originate?

It’s a song most people sing all the time, thanks to the simple act of celebrating a yearly tradition. Chances are you’ve sung it to a friend, a lover, or a family member at least once in the past month. And, for good reason, as it’s considered the most frequently sung piece of music in the world. Can you guess what it is?

Not this. It’s DEFINITELY not this.

The traditional birthday song — known, specifically, as “Happy Birthday To You” — is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most recognized song in the English language. This stands to reason — there was probably never a time in your life where you didn’t know it, considering your family, your friends, and the general public basically know the song by heart. I would bet all the money in the world that you could recite the song in your head right now. When you think about it, the tune and lyrics are as simplistic as they come.

So, it begs the question — where did the song come from?

It was from Hera, the Greek Goddess of childbirth. DUH.

Well … the answer is actually kind of complicated. So, let’s start with what we know.

Now, you wouldn’t be faulted if you believed that “Happy Birthday To You” had no pinpointed origin. After all, many consider it a secular folk song — something passed down from generation to generation, like fairy tales, fables and ancient myths. However, the song, itself, may not be as old as you might think.

In actuality, and surprisingly enough, the “Happy Birthday To You” song is relatively young, by historical standards. The song’s most popular origin story goes back to 1893, where the tune to the song was composed by two American sisters — Patty Smith Hill, a kindergarten teacher in Louisville, Kentucky; and Mildred Jane Hill, a pianist and composer. It’s important to point out that it was the tune of said song that is historically credited with the Hill sisters. The lyrics of the song, “Good Morning To All,” went like this:

Good Morning To You,
Good Morning To You,
Good Morning, Dear Children,
Good Morning To You.

According to the Hill sisters, the simplicity of the song was by design, but not because it would be remembered as a modern folk song. In fact, “Good Morning To You” was part of a bigger project, with the goal of creating songs that even the youngest of children could learn easily. They published the song, in its “Good Morning To You” variant, in their 1893 book, “Song Stories for the Kindergarten.”

This is where the answer to the question “where did Happy Birthday To You come from?” gets a bit complicated. Because, while many attribute the song to the Hill sisters creating the tune in 1893, there have been disputes to this claim. The tune is not completely original, according to music scholars that have identified the melody as derivative of other works in the 19th century — specifically, 1858’s “Happy Greetings To All”, 1858’s “Good Night To All”, and 1875’s “Happy New Year To All”, among others — however, this claim is disputed among the scholarly community.

That is not even taking into account that the Hill sisters did not come up with the “Happy Birthday” lyrics. In fact, there is no true consensus as to where they ultimately originated. The earliest iteration of the “Happy Birthday To You” lyrics came 19 years after the Hill sisters’ composition, showing up in a piano manufacturer’s songbook in 1912. Other versions of the song as we know it today appeared in the Hall & McCreary Company’s 1915 iteration of The Golden Book of Favorite Songs, and in Harvest Hymns by Robert Coleman in 1924.

The issue as to the true origin of “Happy Birthday To You” has been a subject of copyright law that came to the public consciousness as recently as 2016 — a subject that will be discussed in the near future. Regardless, the song that has been a large part of modern society for over a century has some fascinating, if not somewhat mysterious, roots.