Sunday, March 09, 2008

Ronald McDonald's Birthday Blues

Pretty much everyone knows that if you can blow out all of the candles on your birthday cake with one puff, you can make a silent wish which will come true. But did you know that if the knife touches the bottom of your birthday cake while making the first cut, your wish won’t come true? Or that every time you have a birthday party at McDonald's you're breaking the law?

But first ... why do we have candles on cakes anyway? Like most popular traditions, it all seems a bit odd if you take a step back and look at it objectively. From what I can discover, it’s fire, rather than candles, that relates to birthdays.

Originally, a birthday was not celebrated as it is nowadays. Rather, it was a day of panic and worry because people believed that malevolent spirits would attack you on the anniversary of your birth. Therefore, the birthday boy or girl would light a big fire to keep the nasties away, and invite friends and family over for additional protection. And so the birthday party was born. To add to the myth, the Greeks would make tribute to Artemis in the form of round cakes decorated with candles so that they would glow like the Moon. Artemis was the twin of Apollo and was goddess of the wilderness, the hunt, wild animals and fertility. She is also associated with the Moon and was often depicted with the crescent Moon above her head. Some scholars argue that in fact the candles carried the tribute up to the gods in the form of smoke.

And you might find it quite interesting to learn that the most performed song of all time isn’t Bohemian Rhapsody or Yellow Submarine or even the Birdie Song. It’s Happy birthday to you, that annoying tune that we all sing before blowing out the candles. I had heard some story about the song actually being copyrighted, so I checked the story out on the Snopes Urban Legends website. And it’s true! Here’s the story …

In 1893, two sisters from Louisville, Kentucky, called Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill penned a little ditty to be sung in infant schools. The song went:

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning dear children,
Good morning to all.

The Hills' tune was published in the songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten later that year. No one is quite sure who set the ‘Happy Birthday to You’ lyrics to the tune but its first published appearance was in a songbook edited by Robert H. Coleman in 1924. After that, the arrival or radio and the ‘talkies’ spread the song around the world. It was featured in the score of the Broadway musical The Band Wagon in 1931 and became the first ever singing telegram used by Western Union. But when Irving Berlin used the ‘Good morning to you’ melody in his musical As Thousands Cheer, Jessica Hill, a third Hill sister, decide enough was enough and sued. Her sisters had never been credited for the song and were not receiving any royalties. Her suit was successful and she secured the copyright of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ for her sisters in 1934. Under US law the copyright protection of ‘Happy Birthday’ will remain intact until at least 2030.

So, as Snopes asks … are we all in breach of copyright every time we sing the song at a birthday party? No is the answer, thankfully. The copyright covers use in plays, films, television, public performance and ‘at a place open to the public, or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of family and its social acquaintances is gathered.’ So singing it to little Johnny at school is okay. But if you have your party at McDonalds ... every time one of their annoyingly bouncy staff gets everyone to join in with the song, he/she is breaking the law. The clown is in breach of copyright.

The current copyright holder is Summy-Birchard Music, a small subsidiary of the AOL Time Warner Group. Royalties are split between Summy-Birchard and the Hill Foundation; a fund set up to administer the money. As both sisters died single and childless, the money is either going to charity or to some relative – possibly their very lucky nephew, Archibald.

The writer Bruce Anderson has the last word on this:*

‘The next time you hear "Happy Birthday" in a movie — and now that you’re listening, it won’t be long — stay for the credits at the end of the movie. Think about how Hollywood would love the story of the Hill sisters, two Southern kindergarten teachers who write a song that they only hope will be a useful teacher’s aid. Instead, the song is a hit that never goes away. It is sung hundreds of millions of times each year, a musical juggernaut that tops the efforts of Tin Pan Alley’s best. Appropriately, then, film credits are the one place left where Mildred and Patty Hill still get their due.’

* From ‘Beyond Measure’, published in Attaché, January 2002

Ronald McDonald (c) McDonalds Corporation
Cake photos by Pink Cake Box - probably some of the most inventive cakes I've ever seen.

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