Happy Birthday, Mildred J. Hill!
That greeting could not be more appropriate. Hill, born June 27, 1859, composed “Happy Birthday to You” with her sister Patty. It is considered the most sung song in history.
The song was result of Hill’s involvement with a progressive education school in Louisville and her effort to create uplifting, enjoyable songs for children. The birthday song evolved from a piece she and her sister wrote called “Good Morning to All,” intended to gather children for class.
But her popular legacy remains the birthday song. Early childhood music educators have long cited the piece as a type of music which can be used with children to promote musical education. “Happy Birthday To You” is part of a body of songs that most people “could likely sing with a fair degree of accuracy,” writes music educator Kenneth M. McGuire. He notes it is a song so well known that in some selections of popular American songs it is simply not included because it is considered a given that people will know it.
The song has become part of an international ritual around birthday parties. Early childhood educators consider birthday parties as an important link in socialization. Shalva Weil argues that birthday parties in Israeli kindergartens, including the singing of “Happy Birthday To You,” offers children an introduction to concepts involving being a good person.
Hill surely would have been pleased to know her song was introducing so many children to civil behavior, and to music itself. While today she is most famous for “Happy Birthday,” Hill had another life: she was a scholar of African American music. Hill wrote articles about the impact of blacks on American music under the pseudonym Johann Tonsor. Her writings as Tonsor, especially the 1892 article “Negro Music,” reportedly had an influence on the composition of Antonin Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
In her own lifetime, Hill never realized what a contribution she made to the world of music. At the time of her death, in Chicago in 1916, the song was still decades away from becoming a birthday party institution.
Review: New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life by Michael Beckerman
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