The Free Music Archive has run a competition to write a creative commons alternative to Happy Birthday to You.
The first song I ever recorded was a cover of Happy Birthday to You played on a ukulele for Emily Benson. I have since recorded many birthday songs of my own. A birthday rap, spoken word/sample pieces, instrumentals and two whole EPs dedicated to people on their birthdays. I have also composed two songs specifically for newborns to celebrate their actual day of birth. One of these newborn songs, recorded for Reuben Alexander Milner (complete with nine seconds of intro silence referring to the nine months before birth) is probably one of the recordings I am proudest of. I love composing songs for individuals and a birthday is a great opportunity to gather ideas about a friend and bring them together as a celebration. I have also found that, even if the song is jokey, silly or not as good as I wished it were, people love receiving birthday songs. My mum says the song I recorded for her is the best birthday present she’s ever received which is nice of her.
When I read about the contest I thought about what I like about birthday songs, birthdays and the Happy Birthday to You song.
I’ve often thought we put too much emphasis on years and growing older (especially on a day) so wanted my song to celebrate time as an endless collection of reachable memories rather than something linear.
“No year ever ends
There are just new ones beginning all the time. Overlapping.”
Was one of my original ideas along the theme (originally inspired by a song about New Year’s Eve/Day I was writing along the same timelessness theme). Then, last week I saw the wonderful playConstellations by Nick Payne which is a story of love and life in a system of endless time and multiple universes. I felt I had to incorporate this concept into the song as it worked so beautifully.
I wanted something short and memorable so I stuck to around eight lines with a name-replacing introduction in the style of Happy Birthday to You. I wanted to introduce more variables in the song, preferably for adjectives such as the “brilliant” at the start but was told, wisely, by my friend Daniel Cooper that this would make spontaneous group singing difficult and could also lead to joke versions that border on being hurtful.
Here are the words I came up with:
Person you’re brilliant! Person you’re a friend. We’re greeting years in all directions, None will ever end
All your birthdays intertwine, It’s not a line but endless time You’re never getting older, You’re just greater than you ever, ever were.
A big part of the inspiration to take part in the contest (after being sent the initial information about it by Martin Robinson) came from the fact that my (brilliant) friend Philippa Warr was having a birthday party the day before the competition closed for entries. What better way to try the song out than in a pub, among friends, being sung to an actual person? I therefore sat down in the cafe at Foyles in London and wrote up four sets of the lyrics (making note of the free/open distribution/modification/copying license and not putting full stops after the word end) while eating cake and drinking tea (seemed appropriate for a birthday song). I handed out the lyrics at the birthday pub gathering at the Red Lion on Kingly Street in London, didn’t make any attempt at rehearsing a melody with the group (although I had dabbled with a few this seemed the most natural option) and recorded the first take live. I think Philippa enjoyed it and I hope someone else reuses the words in the future as a Happy Birthday to You alternative. We make too much of a fuss about ageing. Why not celebrate the fact that we’re becoming better all the time and have more and more stories and memories to fall back on (whether kept with us or with others)?