Birthday Songs

A cake with candles that spell out "Happy Birthday."
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Today is my birthday.  This got me thinking about the surprising lack of birthday songs, especially good birthday songs.  Everyone knows “Happy Birthday”.  It’s the reigning king and probably won’t be unseated anytime in our lives, but the line of succession dries up pretty quickly after that.

Everyone has a birthday, and most people celebrate their birthdays.  Music is a very common element in celebrations, so why do we only have one song?  Birthdays should be more like Christmas.  Christmas has hundreds, if not thousands of songs.  They range from serious to silly and everyone knows them.

I know some of you are probably thinking that there’s more than one song already, and technically that’s true.  When you go to a restaurant, they never sing “Happy Birthday”.  However, that’s only because “Happy Birthday” was copyrighted until recently.  So, they just changed the lyrics to some public domain song rather than paying the copyright holder.  You see the same thing in some TV shows.  Real people never sing anything other than “Happy Birthday”.

There are a few attempts by popular bands.  “Birthday” by the Beatles is probably the most famous.  These have two problems.  The first is they are just not very good songs.*  The second is that they are not really singable by regular people without accompaniment.  For a birthday song to really catch on, it has to follow the Christmas song pattern.  It has to be a good, catchy song, and has to be singable by carolers (or birthday revelers).

Really, the one song that comes to mind as a possibility is a bit of an oddity.  Phish has a song called “Backwards Down the Number Line”.  It is a song about a birthday song.  The subject of this song would really work.  It is open-ended and free-form, but there is one rule:

You decide what it contains
How long it goes
But this remains
The only rule is it begins
Happy, happy oh my friend

It would be eminently singable by anyone and everyone.  And it would be fun to see how creative your friends can be.

I would love it if, one of these birthdays, someone sings it to me instead of boring old “Happy Birthday”.

*“Birthday” appears on the White Album, which is the most schizophrenic album ever.  If you split the album roughly in half, you would get the best Beatles album, and probably one of the top 5 albums of all time, but the other half would be among the worst albums you’ve ever heard, absolute garbage.  Taken together, as they actually are, and you have a middle of the road Beatles record.

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