National treasure found: Early version of ‘Happy Birthday’ song discovered at UofL

The only known manuscript of Louisville native Mildred Hill’s song “Good Morning to All,” which evolved into the world-famous “Happy Birthday” song, was recently uncovered in the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library at the University of Louisville.

Hill, along with her sister Patty, co-authored the piece originally known as “Good Morning to All,” in the early 1890s as part of their publication “Song Stories for the Kindergarten.” The words evolved over the years but the tune has remained the same and eventually became known as “Happy Birthday.” The song has grabbed national headlines recently as the subject of a high-profile copyright and public domain court case.

The manuscript was discovered by library director James Procell, who found it in Hill’s sketch book. The manuscript, along with several additional musical compositions and papers belonging to Hill, were donated to the library in the 1950s by local philanthropist Hattie Bishop Speed, a friend of the Hill sisters. These documents weren’t cataloged upon receipt and were thus filed away and remained hidden in the library’s archives for decades.

Some differences from the familiar “Happy Birthday” tune are noticeable. The song is written in a different key, and has a slightly different melody, though the rhythm and words remain the same as the published version.

“The question is, is this the original version of the song, or was Ms. Hill somehow unhappy with the published version and this represents a revision of the song?” Procell said.

The first page of the manuscript is missing, making it harder to answer those questions and know the composer’s intentions.

“That’s a mystery in itself,” Procell said. “Where is page one?”

The Mildred Hill papers are a significant addition to the UofL music library’s collection, which is the largest academic music collection in Kentucky and considered one of the best in the U.S.

Procell plans to fully catalog and digitize Hill’s materials in the coming months and is working with School of Music faculty and students to organize a concert of her music in 2016, a century after her death.

Click here to view a video of the music as it is played and Procell describing the manuscript.