Singing Badly into the Phone

This is a big birthday month for our family. Between us my husband and I have five brothers and sisters whose birthdays fall within the month of March, which means that if we were better siblings than we are, we’d spend a lot of time singing “Happy Birthday to You,” loudly and really off key, into the phone.

We don’t have a perfect record, but when we do manage to get the crew together to sing, it’s quite the ridiculous auditory experience for the recipient who greatly appreciates the effort, I’m sure.

I am at least a good enough sibling that I will eat cake in honor of your birthday. photo credit: joncutrer Happy Birthday cake via photopin (license)

It’s strange, really, that we sing so poorly given what a simple little tune the traditional birthday song is. Originally it was designed to be sung by kindergarteners, and at first it had nothing to do with birthdays at all.

It was in the early 1890s when Kentucky school teacher Patty Hill introduced the “Good Morning to All” song to her kindergarten class. Arranged by her sister Mildred Hill, the song first appeared in a collection called Song Stories for the Kindergarten published by Clayton F. Summy in Chicago. It was just a little diddy that was easy for the small kiddos to learn and helped remind them to focus at the beginning of each school day. And it was a simple enough tune that it could be easily adapted for other uses, like wishing a happy birthday, whenever the need arose.

We used such songs with my children when they were young. When as toddlers they were learning to brush their own teeth, we sang what I cleverly named “The Toothbrush Song,” which featured brilliant mommy-on-the-spot lyrics such as “I’m brushin, brushin brushin, brushin, brushin my teeth so I don’t have stinky bad breath.” It helped to liven up the experience and reminded them of how long to keep brushing.

When Warner Bros. purchased the company that held the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You,” the song was estimated to be worth $5 million. I would consider selling the rights to “The Toothbrush Song” for less than that. Like maybe even just $4 million. Image by spangle84 from Pixabay

That’s exactly the kind of thing “Happy Birthday to You” was, a song for teaching a life skill, before it became one of the most legally contentious tunes in history.

The song caught on, and showed up in numerous compilations throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, for the first time with the birthday lyrics in 1912. It appeared in the 1931 Broadway musical The Band Wagon and in Irving Berlin’s 1933 As Thousands Cheer. It became the song to sing at family birthday celebrations. It’s identified in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recognized song in the English language and has been translated into at least eighteen additional languages. “The Toothbrush Song” has yet to catch on quite so well.

Patty Hill and The Summy Company filed a series of lawsuits over the use of the song and in 1935 registered the copyright that would frustrate an awful lot of people for the next eighty years, including birthday celebrators in restaurants forced to wear silly hats in the middle of a circle of clapping waitstaff singing some song that sounded even more made up on the spot.

The Summy Company changed hands a few times and eventually became part of the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate, a company that for quite a while was making an easy $2 million per year on licensing that one silly little kindergarten song. It was serious business. Even Star Trek got in trouble for singing the song translated into Klingon.

I don’t know if the eighteen languages “Happy Birthday to You” has been translated into includes Klingon. I really hope not. photo credit: marakma IMG_3233 via photopin (license)

Any use of “Happy Birthday to You” outside of intimate family gatherings or obnoxious phone renditions performed for unfortunate siblings required a license that would cost from seven hundred to ten thousand dollars, making it possibly the highest-earning song in history.

Then in 1998, the US Supreme Court heard a case involving the Copyright Extension Act, which gets occasionally updated primarily in order to protect Mickey Mouse from ever entering the public domain. The Court upheld the copyright in that case, but in the dissention, the traditional happy birthday song got a mention.

That led law professor Robert Brauneis to do a little research into the history of the song and eventually determine that the copyright could only apply to the specific arrangement initially published by The Summy Company a very long time ago, and that the claim Warner Bros. held on royalties for any performance of the song was pretty shaky. That conclusion led to further lawsuits and a hefty settlement for Warner Bros.

So if, instead of sticking to a truly terrible phone rendition, you want to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to your sister while she wears a ginormous sombrero at the local Mexican restaurant, or if you want to use it in your Broadway musical, or perform it on the jumbotron at Lambeau Field, go right ahead. As of June 28, 2016, the song is in the public domain in the United States. In Europe, too, since January 1, 2017. And if you’d like permission to use “The Toothbrush Song,” just let me know. I’m sure we can work something out.

A Bazillion Years Old Without a Single Tattoo

I haven’t been trying to notice, because I realize it probably says something unflattering about me that I do, but it seems to me like there are suddenly a lot of old people with tattoos.

I’m not against tattoos or anything. I don’t have any, nor do I have a desire to get one, but if you are a fan and have one or two or ten of your own, I promise I’m not judging you. It’s just that it’s recently occurred to me that quite a few people who are old enough to be my grandmother now have them. And it strikes me as odd because that used to be a pretty rare thing.

Of course, the people I’m referring to are not, in fact, old enough to be my grandmother. They are the age my grandmother was when I remember her most vividly, back when most of these tattooed folks were probably under forty.

oldtatts
Again, not judging, just observing a noticeable shift. This person looks nothing like my grandmother. photo credit: Neil. Moralee If you value your life; don’t touch the bike! via photopin (license)

But time moves on, doesn’t it? A few weeks ago, my husband and I got an opportunity to attend Pointfest, a concert festival put on by a local “alternative” radio station (105.7 the Point). The festival has been a staple in St. Louis since 1993 (when fewer old people had tattoos).

This was a special event for several reasons. First, even though our nephew had tickets for us, we weren’t sure we were going to get to go because we couldn’t find childcare (ouch) and because the show was on a school/work night (double ouch). Second, this wasn’t even really Pointfest. The radio station had dubbed this event Way Back Pointfest.

Fortunately, I have an awesome sister-in-law who stepped up at the last minute so we could display poor judgment and stay out late on a school night. The lineup looked pretty much like it did when I was in college, with bands from the way back that were alternative then (meaning I was pretty sure that the fact I listened to them meant I was just a little bit cooler than you), and have now become the older alternative to the alternative. And because I still listen to them, that means I’m probably older than you.

Goldfinger
I’m young enough to take most of my pictures with my smart phone, but old enough that I do it poorly.

Given that the world wide average life expectancy is around 71 years (for women, sorry fellas, yours is a couple years shorter), there’s a decent chance that I am. Because this week I will turn 40.

In some ways this isn’t a big deal. It’s not like I’m going to wake up on the 40th anniversary of my birth and suddenly find that my hair has gone gray, my back hurts, and I have to hold books at arm’s length to be able to make out all those tiny letters.

To some extent, all of that has already happened. Or at least it’s been happening, little by little. I don’t mind so much. I know a few more gray hairs make me look wiser than I probably am. Strong backs and sharp eyes grow weaker over time, but I feel like I’ve made good use of my strength and I will continue to do so as long as I’m able. Barring the unexpected, that’s still quite a while yet.

But there are little parts of turning 40 that do kind of bug me, like when the average age of tattoo-bearing people increases noticeably, or my favorite bands are relegated to the way back, or I make a reference to something that happened twenty years ago and my college freshmen students look at me like I’ve just made a reference to an event that happed a bazillion years ago as if it happened yesterday. Of course I get it. Even though it feels like yesterday to me, for them it happened when they were babes, if they were even born at all.

To them (though they probably wouldn’t say it to my face because they’re nice people) their teacher might as well be a bazillion years old, too. And they’re not really wrong. The number 40 has all kinds of symbolic meaning across cultures and through several major world religions, the most common one being simply figurative. Forty is often used to represent a vaguely large number.

Like a bazillion.

forty cupcake
But once you get to bazillion, you can stop counting, right?

So, you might soon notice a slight change on this blog. For five and a half years, my Gravatar bio has identified me as a “thirty-something wife, mother, and writer…” Since my husband tells me there’s no such number as thirty-ten, I suppose I will have to change it.

But not for a few more days.

By the time I return to this space next Thursday to write about a topic that feels a little less personally insulting, I may have a few more gray hairs and my back will probably hurt and I might even be sitting a little farther from the computer screen so I can see all those tiny letters. I will be a bazillion-year-old wife, mother, and writer. But I still won’t have a tattoo.

To help me celebrate this momentous occasion, please enjoy this way, way back song from a ridiculously famous singer I’d never heard of because that was a bazillion years ago: