Monday, April 16, 2007

Golden, Them Thar Hills Sisters

Mark Steyn gives us the skinny on the economics of the most popular ditty ever sung:

The story begins in a parking lot in Louisville, Kentucky.... it's called "The Birthday Lot". Odd sort of name for a parking lot. But that's because it's a tribute to two daughters of Louisville, Mildred J Hill and her sister Patty Hill. .... In 1893, Mildred was teaching at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School where Patty was principal, and one day Mildred wrote a simple tune - one line sung thrice, but with the merest of variations to provide a kind of middle section. Patty put words to it - also simple, just seven words, no rhymes.

.... "Happy Birthday To You" is a legally enforceable intellectual property. .... by Warner Chappell, the world's biggest music publisher and thus in a position to take their copyrights very seriously. If you want to use "Happy Birthday" in a movie or TV show, they'll charge you many thousands of dollars for the privilege, which is why it hardly ever happens: the world's most performed song is a routine feature of the cultural landscape yet all but entirely absent from our film and television catalogues. See for yourself - the next time there's a birthday scene in the movie, watch for the cake, the candles, the wishes, but wait in vain for the "Happy Birthday" singalong. And, if they do sing it, it'll be just an excerpt. There's a party scene in The Rocky Horror Show in which someone calls out "Start to sing 'Happy Birthday' but don't finish it", and (doubtless on legal advice) Dr Frank N Furter cuts off the caterwauling after one line. That's also why the more nervous restauranteurs insist the wait staff serenade their customers with limp pseudo-funky birthday greetings, just in case the Ascap enforcement squad is on the prowl.

Warner Chappell make several million dollars a year in royalties from "Happy Birthday" and they've no desire to see that wither away: When it comes to happy birthdays, it's better to receive than to give.

Warner Chappell's grip on "Happy Birthday To You" has never been tested in court, in part because they've got the deepest pockets in the world and you haven't. But it rests on the curious proposition that there are two entirely different songs: "Good Morning To All", a copyrighted song whose copyright has expired and is in public domain, and "Happy Birthday To You", a copyrighted song that remains in copyright and is eminently enforceable. And they're both written by the same people. This is a very bizarre interpretation of law. For a start, the only musical difference between the two songs is one note: The "good" of "Good morning to you" is one syllable whereas the "happy" of "Happy birthday to you" is two syllables, so an extra note was found to accommodate it. In no other circumstances has that ever been regarded as sufficient to make something an entirely separate composition....

And, if that one note is sufficient to make "Happy Birthday" legally an entirely different song from "Good Morning", then so is every variation sung at every birthday party in the world: after all, every time you sing "Happy birthday, dear Billy-Bob" or "Happy birthday, dear Victoria", you're adding at least as much new lyrical content and (in the case of polysyllabic names) musical content as the "composer" of "Happy Birthday To You" added to "Good Morning To All". As for the lyric, the first recorded publication of "Happy Birthday To You" was as the second verse of "Good Morning To All".

And that's before you go back to the 19th century and address the similarities between "Good Morning To All" and "Happy Greetings To All" and "Good Night To You All", both of the last published in 1858 and almost certainly known to a musicologist such as Mildred Hill.

But do you want to spend a gazillion dollars telling that to Warner Chappell? As they say in the music biz, where there's a hit there's a writ. And there's no reason why the boffo-est song of all should be an exception to that. So the Hill sisters' interest in the song passed to their nephew, Archibald Hill, the world renowned linguist whose most lucrative asset was a handful of simple words for a children's jingle. On what we hope is the first of many birthdays for the SteynOnline Song of the Week, we celebrate the whims of American show business that give the heirs of two 19th century Louisville kindergarten teachers a lifelong insurance policy in the 21st century.

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