What do you get a vintage bandmaster on his 142nd birthday?
It sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it’s really just a rhetorical question. Because I don’t know what my great-grandfather G. Oliver’s favorite kind of cake was, I went to CakeWalk in Northfield today and brought home a delicious-looking fruit tart. The dessert wasn’t quite large enough to accommodate 142 candles, so I went with four, and we sang a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” in honor of the birthday bandmaster.
And that got me wondering ... I know the song has been around for a long time, and is said to be the most well-known song in the English-speaking world, but was it around when G. Oliver was growing up?
My Internet sources tell me that the tune has been around since 1893; at that time, 23-year-old G. Oliver was teaching violin and directing a band at the Iowa Wesleyan University Conservatory of Music. But the tune would not have been sung for his birthday that year. The song was originally known as “Good Morning to All.” Sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill of Louisville Kentucky wrote it for kindergarten teachers to use as a greeting song.
It’s unclear exactly how or when the words changed to the ones we sing today. The “Happy Birthday” lyrics first appeared in a songbook in 1924 as a second stanza to “Good Morning to All.” Uncredited uses of the song in the mid-1930s – like its appearance in the Broadway musical The Band Wagon – led a third sister, Jessica Hill, to pursue copyright protection in 1934 (you can read more about the song history and its copyright protections here and here).
Although I can’t say for sure whether “Happy Birthday to You” was sung on the occasion of any of G. Oliver’s later birthdays, before he died in early 1946, I do know this: he never heard anyone sing the Beatles’ “Birthday” song. That song was released a few weeks before my first birthday, and four days before what would have been G. Oliver's 98th birthday.
That’s a good song, too. Maybe we’ll do it next year.