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Listen To What 'Happy Birthday' Might Have Sounded Like


"Happy Birthday to You" is such a familiar song that many people don’t realize it hasn’t just been passed down through generations.

The song was actually composed by Mildred and Patty Hill, sisters from Louisville. Patty Hill was a kindergarten teacher, and the song — originally called “Good Morning to All” — was intended for use in the classroom. It was first published, along with about 70 other simple songs for children, in 1893. (It has also been the subject of an epic and ongoing copyright battle.)

But a librarian may have found an alternate version hidden in the archives at the University of Louisville.

It appears Mildred Hill sketched out a revision of the song a few years after the original, according to James Procell, director of the music library at the University of Louisville. That's because despite its ubiquity, the song can be difficult to sing.

"Mildred would compose the songs, Patty almost always wrote the words," Procell said. "Patty would take the songs to her class, try them out, and if the kids had trouble singing a particular note or 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."

Procell was looking through a file of documents related to the history of music in Louisville when he decided to check out a folder pertaining to Mildred Hill. He said the items were probably donated in the early 1950s and had never been thoroughly cataloged.

In a sketchbook, he found a handwritten manuscript of a song very similar to “Good Morning to All” — which is what the familiar version of "Happy Birthday" was originally titled. The rhythms and the overall structure are the same, but the melody is different.

Here's the version he discovered, along with the original:

"You notice in the original version, the version that we all know, there’s a big octave skip," said Procell. "That’s really tough for people to sing, particularly kindergartners."

It's in the third line of the song, "happy birthday to [name]," that the octave jump happens, and the tune usually goes off the rails. The manuscript version has fewer jumps than the original, with a narrower range of notes.

"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," Procell said.

In addition to writing songs for children, Mildred Hill was also a serious composer and musicologist. Procell said she wrote art songs, chamber music and a chamber opera. She was also interested in folk music and predicted that African-American spirituals would become influential long before they actually did. She died in 1916, before “Happy Birthday to You” became widespread.

"She never realized that this song would go on to become one of the most popular songs in the world," Procell said.

He plans to digitize the materials he found and make them available to the public. He’s also planning a concert of Mildred Hill’s music in 2016.


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