Home » Uncategorized » Mildred J. Hill and Happy Birthday to You.

Mildred J. Hill and Happy Birthday to You.

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Mildred J. Hill (June 27, 1859 – June 5, 1916) was an American songwriter and musicologist, who composed the melody for “Good Morning to All,” later used as the melody for “Happy Birthday to You.”  Mildred was born on June 27, 1859, in Louisville, Kentucky, the oldest of three sisters.  Patty and Jessica were her two younger siblings. She learned music from her father, Calvin Cody, and Adolph Weidig.  It has been reported that Mildred Hill was a kindergarten and Sunday-school teacher, like her younger sister Patty.  Prof. Robert Brauneis, after extensively researching the Hill family, has concluded that she was not a kindergarten teacher. She moved into music, teaching, composing, performing, and specializing in the study of Negro spirituals. She wrote about music using the pen name Johann Tonsor, and her 1892 article “Negro Music,” suggesting that the existing body of black music would be the basis of a distinctive American musical style, influenced Dvořák in composing the New World Symphony.

Hill and her sister were honored at the Chicago World’s Fair for their work in the progressive education program at the experimental kindergarten, the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School.   While teaching at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, the Hill sisters wrote the song “Good Morning to All.”  Mildred provided the melody, and Patty (1868-1946), the lyrics. The song was first published in 1893 in Song Stories for the Kindergarten by Clayton F. Summy Co. as a greeting song for teachers to sing to their students.  “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in print in 1912 by the Cable Company in The Beginners’ Book of Songs using the melody of “Good Morning to All” with different lyrics.  Hill died in Chicago, Illinois, on June 5, 1916, long before her song became famous. She is buried with her sister in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.  Mildred Hill’s manuscripts and papers are held by the University of Louisville Music Library in Louisville, Kentucky.

The popularity of “Happy Birthday to You” continued to grow through the 1930s, with no author identified for the new lyrics, nor credit given for the melody from “Good Morning to You.”  Early printings of “Happy Birthday” contained no copyright information or identification of author and composer.  Based on 1935 copyright registrations by the Summy Company crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R. R. Forman, and a series of court cases (which all settled out of court), the Hill sisters became known as the authors of “Happy Birthday to You.”  The Hill Foundation today shares royalties on public performances of the song. However this was brought into question after a judge ruled against the legitimacy of the copyright.  In 1988, Warner/Chappell Music purchased the company owning the copyright.

Warner claimed that the United States copyright will not expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are technically illegal unless royalties are paid to Warner.   The 1893 song, Good Morning to All, entered into the public domain in 1949. The birthday lyrics were added later so that created a new work. This birthday version was not copyrighted until 1935 and, therefore, was subject to the copyright laws of the 1909 act.  Under the copyright laws of 1909, a work was copyrighted for 28 years and during the 28th year, it was eligible for copyright renewal for a second term of 28 years making a total of 56 years. Since Happy Birthday was registered for copyright in 1935, that would have taken it through 1991 before it became public domain. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 changed the renewal period from 28 years to 47 years. Instead of the 1991 date, the copyright was extended to 2010.

The copyright term was changed again in 1998 with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. The purpose of this act was to have U.S. copyright terms more in line with European copyright terms. For works created on or after January 1, 1978, the length of copyright would be life of author plus 70 years. For works copyrighted before January 1, 1978, the term would be extended an additional 20 years. Therefore, with 20 more years added on to 2010, the copyright for Happy Birthday goes through 2030.  The American copyright status of “Happy Birthday to You” began to draw more attention with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998.  When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act in Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer specifically mentioned “Happy Birthday to You” in his dissenting opinion.

American law professor Robert Brauneis, who extensively researched the song, concluded in 2010 that “It is almost certainly no longer under copyright.”   In 2013, based in large part on Brauneis’s research, Good Morning to You Productions, a company producing a documentary about “Good Morning to All,” sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright to the song.  In September 2015, a federal judge declared that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim was invalid, ruling that the copyright registration applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, and not to its lyrics and melody. In February 2016 Warner/Chappell settled for US $14 million, paving the way for the song to become public domain.  Hill and her sister were posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 12, 1996 although the claim that the sisters composed the tune is sometimes disputed..  According to the 1998 Guinness World Records, “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language, followed by “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and “Auld Lang Syne.” The song’s base lyrics have been translated into at least 18 languages.

The following work by Mildred J. Hill is contained in my collection:

Happy Birthday to You.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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