The World’s Most Performed Song

Dick Rosemont - July 1, 2013

Hint: it was never a hit record

If you were asked what the world's most performed song is, what would come to mind?  Beethoven's 5th Symphony (da da da daaaah)? "Chicken Dance?" "Hava Nagila?" "Free Bird?" It may be impossible to prove but the likely answer is "Happy Birthday to You."
Who hasn't sung this simple tune, or had it sung to them? And it extends beyond English speakers, as "Happy Birthday to You" has been translated into numerous other languages. "Que los cumplas feliz" in Spanish, "Alles Gute zum Geburtstag" in German, "Tanti auguri a te in Spanish", "Joyeux anniversaire à vous" in French etc. Some cultures, such as French-Canadians, Mexicans and Japanese, often sing it in English just to demonstrate how "cool and worldly" they are. Frankly, I'd feel "cool and worldly" if I could sing it in Japanese.
One of the most famous renditions of "Happy Birthday to You" occurred at Madison Square Gardens in 1962 when Marilyn Monroe crooned breathily to President John F. Kennedy. I wonder if that happy birthday had a happy ending.
The roots of the song go back to at least the 1800s when sisters Mildred & Patty Hill popularized their composition "Good Morning to All." Some say they borrowed from earlier songs like "Happy Greetings to All" and "Good Night to You All." "Good Morning to All" caught on with grade school children and the sisters formally published it in 1893's Song Stories For The Kindergarten. The Hills continued delighting kids with their song and spontaneously sang new lyrics at a birthday party, creating the version we all know. While there is substantial evidence it was performed decades earlier, "Happy Birthday to You" was finally copyrighted in 1935, through the same publisher that held "Good Morning to All." Through various sales and acquisitions in the meantime, the song is presently administered by Warner Music Group.
Yes, "Happy Birthday to You" is currently a copyrighted work, but not without controversy. Publishing laws are confusing and continue to change. As you can imagine, there are various opinions as to whether the song—melody and/or lyrics—should still be owned. Controlling and licensing its use is far from peanuts as Warner Music collects around $2 million a year from that one simple song. You know where they stand on the question!
Filmmaker Jennifer Nelson has been producing a documentary, tentatively called Happy Birthday, about the song. For use of "Happy Birthday to You," she was told it would take $1,500 to license it. This June, she was prompted to file a class action lawsuit in Southern New York federal court to have the song declared in the public domain. The case is too new to report any outcome but, in the meantime, don't assume you can commercially use it without proper payment to Warner Music's publishing division Warner/Chappell.
An entertainment & copyright attorney friend of mine brought up an interesting point. It's typically easier, and less expensive, to pay for the use of "Happy Birthday to You" than to challenge Warner/Chappell's claim of ownership. If there is no legal precedent again them, they can continue to demand payments. It's like a bully that no one dares stand up to. Certainly it will be worth watching where the Nelson suit takes this issue.
I still have the little record, scratched and worn as it is, that my family would pull out and spin on our birthdays. It's a 7" 78 RPM disc, probably from the 1940s. Titled simply "Happy Birthday," it's an extended rendition of "Happy Birthday to You," credited to the Caroleers, directed by Vicky Kasem. Notably, there is no writing credit or publisher listed. Perhaps back then it was assumed to be in the public domain. Or, being essentially a childrens release, who worried about it? This record has been reissued at least a couple of times, with updated Peter Pan Records label graphics, but never any publishing info. The flip side is a definite public domain song though: "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."
Yes, there are newer birthday recordings to use as alternatives to "Happy Birthday to You." The Tune Weavers' 1957 "Happy Happy Birthday Baby" probably filled the bill for years. Then the Beatles' simple "Birthday" became the next generation's choice. Plenty of contemporary artists have created birthday songs, but none that has demonstrated any real staying power. Whatever the outcome of its legal status, the Hill sisters' longstanding ditty will certainly endure.