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Performances Song History

Happy Birthday to You

Music/Lyrics: Hill/Hill/Coleman

Vocals: Various

Original Artist: Traditional

Debut: 1983-12-02

Historian: Ellis Godard

There was a time when birthdays were of relatively little import. The institution of “childhood” as we know it did not exist, and there were religious objections to celebrating our unity in Adam’s original sin. The first recorded birth celebrations were for noblemen and kings, and the Catholic Church even ruled against being exact about the date of Christ’s birth. But by the 19th century, children were regarded as events worth celebrating. Making it through another year without the palsy was worth a toast, and the ritual of birthdays spread to the lower classes.

The song now associated with that ritual began as something else entirely – and its history is not as pleasant or simple as the song itself. Song Stories for the Kindergarten, an 1893 songbook, included “Good Morning to All” written by the Louisville sisters Mildred and Patty Hill as a morning welcome song. Entrepreneur Robert Coleman substituted the words “happy birthday, dear (name)” for “good morning, dear children,” republished the song, and began claiming ownership.

Eventually, the Hill family sued, won, and began claiming the royalties. But the legal battle soured the magic: Western Union stopped sending singing birthday messages, and the song was removed from several Broadway plays. Nonetheless, in the ensuing century, “Happy Birthday” (as it is typically called and listed) has become the most sung song. (Note that the shorter title, "Happy Birthday," was the published title of a 1934 march; the full song was published as "Happy Birthday to You" in 1893 and again in 1935.)

Phish’s versions have sometimes been traditional (e.g. 2/7/885/21/88, and 10/7/89). More often, they’ve given the song a new voice, including a long reggae version (3/6/87, to Sue and Debra) and Fishman’s own reggae stylings (7/25/99, for Chris Kuroda). Mike has had two birthdays on stage (6/3/88 & 6/3/89). Page has been the most frequent target (5/17/915/17/92 during “Coil,” and 5/17/94), but there were also two performances each for Fishman (2/19/91 during “Love You” and 2/19/93, when he was presented with a giant clock necklace) and Kuroda (7/26/91, and 7/25/99 when each member took a solo and then Kuroda took a light solo). Other targets are largely unknown beyond mentions on tape (e.g. Heather 6/16/90 and Erica 7/13/91; and, spoken not sung, Dimitri 9/28/91, Wesley 11/19/91, and Greenpeace Dana 12/12/92).

The audience has done the singing a few times, thrice for Trey (9/29/909/29/99 and 9/30/00) and once for Page (5/17/94 after Trey brought out a cake). And, of course, the tune has been teased dozens of times in nods to band mates' birthdays (e.g. in “Bowie” 2/19/91 for Fishman, “Maze” 5/17/94 for Page, and “Stash” 9/29/99 for Trey). But perhaps the most interesting is Fishman’s 10/6/89 performance (including vacuum) for his brother David. The tradition continued in Phish 3.0 on 3/8/09, honoring Fish's dad, Leonard.

The 9/21/87 version is notable, for having been listed for decades as "The Birthday Dub", which is how Trey introduced it that night. This dub version opened a third set and was dedicated to an otherwise unidentified fan or friend, "Spup".

Those Hill sisters are rolling in their graves. 

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