Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Marilyn Monroe
performing the most notorious rendition
of the world's most famous song

One day a few weeks ago the 4-year-old asked what the most famous song in the world was. "Happy Birthday to You," I answered. All over the world, people sing it -- millions of times a day.

I thought of it again today when I saw a blurb for a classical "crossover" album, something about "the world's most beloved melodies," and I thought, "Did Joshua Bell record 'Happy Birthday to You'?!" (I didn't check to see.)

But then, "Happy Birthday to You" might not be exactly . . . beloved; it's more utilitarian, ritualistic, like a piece of furniture. Something that, if you don't have it, you miss it, but you don't think about it very much. Like indoor plumbing. It might be the only regular occasion for polytonality in everyday life, with a group of people all starting off in different keys, usually gravitating toward the most comfortable key after a couple of measures. Personally, I'm always happy to hear it or sing it.

One memorable birthday, my 30th, an impromptu ensemble played it for me over the phone. Fractured trombone, guitar, I don't remember what else. My friends played it -- and I never did find out who all was in that band -- and then hung up. I couldn't have been happier.

If Joshua Bell were to record it, he would have to pay royalties, for a song which a company stole from two sisters and the public domain. Wikipedia tells the sorry tale. A woman named Mildred Hill composed the tune in 1893. Her sister wrote the original lyrics, "Good Morning to All," to be sung in elementary classrooms. Nobody knows who wrote the Birthday words, or even when.

The web doesn't have a picture of composer Mildred Hill. The only picture of her tombstone, in Louisville, Kentucky, is copyrighted.
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