LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
There's no way to sugarcoat it, every birthday brings you a year closer to death. Why then, we might we ask, is the "Happy Birthday" song so darn cheery? Well, now it seems that it did not start out as a birthday tune at all. Tara Anderson from member station WFBL in Louisville explains.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU")
TARA ANDERSON, BYLINE: "Happy Birthday To You." It was written by Mildred and Patty Hill, sisters from Louisville. But it was originally called "Good Morning To All" because Patty Hill was a kindergarten teacher. The song was written in the 1890s to be used in her classroom. The sisters' notes, manuscripts and sketchbooks eventually made their way to the University of Louisville music library, where they sat for years. James Procell, the library director, didn't know what he had.
JAMES PROCELL: I do recall seeing this folder in there, and I thought, oh, that's Mildred Hill. She wrote "Happy Birthday." I should probably look in that folder one day.
ANDERSON: It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that he actually looked at the papers. One of them was a handwritten version of "Good Morning To All." Procell recognized the words right away, but, being a musician, he could easily see that the tune wasn't the same as of the one we all know. He thinks he knows why.
PROCELL: Mildred would compose the songs. Patty almost always wrote the words. Patty, who was a kindergarten teacher, would take the songs to her class, try them out. And if the kids had trouble singing a particular note or if it was too high or too low or the rhythm was too complicated, she would bring the songs back to Mildred, and Mildred would revise them.
ANDERSON: It's not hard to prove that the "Happy Birthday" tune as we know it can be tough to sing.
PROCELL: Want to practice? Go.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.
ANDERSON: It includes a big octave jump in the third line. You can hear where these kids have trouble.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Happy birthday, dear Sally (ph). Happy birthday to you.
ANDERSON: The newly discovered version has a narrower range of notes with no big jumps. Here it is performed by University of Louisville piano professor, Naomi Oliphant.
NAOMI OLIPHANT: (Playing piano).
PROCELL: So it's possible that the manuscript version that we have is Mildred attempting to simplify it a little bit and make it a little bit easier to sing.
ANDERSON: Nobody knows exactly how "Good Morning To All" became "Happy Birthday To You." Procell says it's possible that a third Hill sister, Jessica, changed the words at a birthday party, or maybe it was Patty Hill. Mildred Hill died way back in 1916, before "Happy Birthday To You" became a hit.
PROCELL: She never realized that this song would go on to become one of the most popular songs in the world.
ANDERSON: Because this is "Good Morning To All," the discovery doesn't affect a current legal battle over whether "Happy Birthday To You" still deserves a copyright. The rest of Mildred Hill's work - art songs, chamber music, even a chamber opera - is already in the public domain. James Procell is planning a concert of her work for next year. For NPR News, I'm Tara Anderson in Louisville.
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