To each of us who has enjoyed a piece of birthday cake, the strains of "Happy Birthday to You" are as familiar to our ears as our own names. Yet how many people know the origin of the tune and its place in American history?
In 1889 Patty and Mildred Hill, two Kentucky sisters, wrote the words and composed the melody of "Good Morning to All" for their kindergarten students. Initially written as a simple greeting and welcome, they later changed the words and birthday celebrations were forever altered. But it wasn't until 1935 that the sisters' song was fully copyrighted and their names duly credited.
Here is the true story behind the most famous and oft-sung song in the world.
Margot Theis Raven, the author of such inspiring children's books as Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot and Let Them Play, relates the story behind one of the most famous and oft-sung songs in the world.
Margot Theis Raven's award-winning books are often set against powerful historical backdrops such as America's civil rights period. Her books for Sleeping Bear Press include America's White Table and Let Them Play, which was named a 2006 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Margot lives in Charleston, South Carolina.
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: DECEMBER 2008
The story behind these words and music is truly an American tale of a large loving family blessed to share their creativity with those around them. Two Kentucky sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill–teacher and composer–created the song as a second verse to their “Good Morning to You” melody, which was shared with Ms. Patty’s kindergarten class on a daily basis. A lovely succession of watercolor paintings depicts the latter half of the 19th century in Louisville and illuminates the thoughtful expressions and joyful faces of the Hill family. With a final historical note, readers find the record of the Hills’ service to education and eventual recognition in the academic world. Forget what you remember about Irving Berlin’s connection with the tune–the copyright for this title was correctly assigned 45 years after it was composed, an eye-opener for history and trivia lovers in all libraries.
–Mary Elam, Forman Elementary School, Plano, TX
"Teaching Copyright with Happy Birthday to You!"
-by Diane Chen for School Library Journal, September 8, 2008
Open my mail and what do I see? Happy Birthday to You! The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World. Okay, I think to myself. This title must be a picture book celebrating birthdays that everyone in elementary can pull out over and over... Wrong! It is far more.
This is the title that I shall read aloud to classes before emphasizing my lesson on copyright and giving credit to the original writers of information. The pages "Footnote to History" take this book beyond a beautifully illustrated celebration of how a song was created to an insightful understanding of the need for and process of obtaining copyright for original material.
If you have ever been frustrated when you are in a restaurant and the staff converges on some poor person to shout out some "altered" version of Happy Birthday, to You, then you need to read this book. I admit being resentful that no one could sing the correct version in public anymore because they were afraid they'd have to pay money. "Who are these stingy, greedy people?" I wondered.
Turns out these simple sisters from Kentucky that helped disseminate the concept of kindergarten in the late 1800's wrote a song book called Song Stories for the Kindergarten where they included a song of "Morning Greeting." They had a history of changing the words to that simple tune for all kindergarten events - especially birthdays, so they really were the creators of this tune and words.
It was only when the Birthday Song showed up in a Broadway musical that sisters Patty and Jessica became furious and took their case to court. The song "Happy Birthday to You" was copyrighted in 1935 giving credit to sisters Patty and Mildred. The copyright ends in 2030.
Want to know how much revenue is earned each year? You'll have to get the book. I will tell you that the revenue benefits the Hill Foundation and early childhood education. There, do you feel better about it being copyrighted?
You must add Happy Birthday to You! to your collection to satisfy teacher's needs in the classroom. The illustrations by Chris Soentpiet (Soon peet) fill each page with rich color and joy. My only gripe is that the cover illustration is so very tiny that you have no idea of the luscious art work waiting inside. Chris Soentpiet won my heart with Molly Bannaky and with Coolies. He has also illustrated More Than Anything Else, My Brother Martin, and Peacebound Trains. I have always thought his work reminded me of Ted Lewin's for it's dramatic impact. Imagine my surprise when I read on Chris's web site the Cast of Characters of his life.
Author Margot Theis Raven also wrote America's White Table, Let Them Play, Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot, and many others. Thanks Margot for writing two stories in one - the joyful celebration of a creative family and the importance of copyrighting creative and original work.
Theme: “Happy Birthday to You” can be used to introduce your students to American life during the late 1880s (schools in the south), educating girls, copyrighting.
Background: Two sisters, wrote the words and composed the melody of “Good Morning to All” for their kindergarten students. Initially written as a simple greeting to start the day, the words were changed to suit other occasions: “Happy Journey to You,” “Happy Christmas to You,” and finally “Happy Birthday to You.” But it wasn’t until 1935 that the sisters’ song was fully copyrighted and their names duly credited.
Pre-reading: Show the students the cover of the book, read the title, author and illustrators name. Ask them what they think the book will be about. Imagine having a birthday with no one singing the song "Happy Birthday to You." Before the 1900s that's exactly the way things were. You might have presents, cake, candles, and cards, but there was no Happy Birthday song to sing, because it had not yet been written. Ask the students what would we sing then?
Reading: As you read and show the illustrations, have the students look closely at the drawings. What details can they find in the pictures? Have them look closely at the expressions of the main character, Patty Hill -- how do they change during the story.
Activities: Ask the students to write a poem or a short story. Then ask what if their work was read by someone else and they receive no credit for creating it. How will they feel?
Geography: When Patty was young, she and her family lived in Missouri. Later after her father died, they moved to Kentucky. Have the students find Missouri and Kentucky on the map. Where is Louisville? How would they travel between the two states? Ask them to estimate the miles. What do they need to bring for their ride -- food, clothes, entertainment items, books etc. What do the think they will see along the way -- will they see rivers, mountains, lakes, deserts, plains, farms, factories, cities etc.
Science: Reverend Hill shared with his children his love of the stars. Using a telescope pointing to the sky, what do they discover (stars, comets and galaxies)? Introduce the science of astronomy.
Literature: Look for other books by Margot Theis Raven such as “America’s White Table”, “Let Them Play” and “Challenger: America’s Favorite Eagle.” And look for other books by Chris Soentpiet such as “Momma, Where Are You From?”. If you enjoyed “Happy Birthday to You” write a review and post it on-line at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com so others can enjoy your reading experience.
Art: After reading “Happy Birthday to You” imagine there is no illustration for the cover. Based on the content of this story, have the students illustrate the cover of this book.