Sing a song of Happy Birthdays

Sunday columnist Wes Burns is off this week. Enjoy this column from the “Best of Burns” file, which originally ran Sept 27, 2015.

Breathe deep the air of freedom, dear readers, for a yoke has been lifted from our collective necks.

Judge George H. King, who is the chief U.S. district judge for the Central District of California, has recently decided/decreed (you get to decree things when you’re last name is King, right?) that “Happy birthday to you,” aka The Birthday Song, aka Happy Birthday, is no longer protected by copyright and has entered the public domain!

Woooooo!

I first wrote about this tyranny back in the heady days of 2013 (“You can’t say that anywhere,” Wes Burns, totally accurate citation method, Sept. 8, 2013). Back then we were all restrained from droning along to that terrible dirge in public for fear of a $700 fine from the song’s copyright holders Warner/Chappell.

Warner/Chappell’s decades long draconian hold on this allegedly celebratory tune pushed the public to create other, stranger birthday songs to celebrate the occasion without dropping $700 on a 15 second ditty.

Case in point: The landmark 80s sitcom “Who’s the Boss?”

Tony (Tony Danza) and Mona (Katherine Marie Helmond) surprised Angela (Judith Light) with a birthday song during breakfast. Since most of the show’s budget was spent on Judith Light’s gigantic hair/sweaters they had no money left to line Warner/Chappell’s deep coffers, which led to the creation of this:

It’s somebody’s birthday, I wonder who?

It’s somebody right in this room near you,

So look all around you until you see who,

He’s laughing and smiling, my goodness, it’s you!

Stupid? Yes. Any stupider than the regular Happy Birthday song? Not in the slightest.

The dissolution of the Happy Birthday copyright is the correct course of action, don’t get me wrong; the fact that it was ever copyrighted material is frankly shocking.

For a few years now television, tired of having to craft not only imaginative plot lines as well as catchy birthday songs, has paid to use the regular Happy Birthday song (“Who’s the Boss” notwithstanding), so I don’t imagine a sudden rush of shows prominently featuring “Happy Birthday.”

But what of the chain restaurants?

National restaurant chains have spent countless hours screaming original, off-key songs directly into the faces of tolerant patrons looking to score a free piece of cake.

And now they too go the way of the dodo … hopefully.

I can’t imagine these chains will keep singing their makeshift songs when the Cadillac of happy birthday songs, “Happy Birthday,” is available.

I’m happy to see the old songs pass; but as is requisite living in this age of instant nostalgia, I’m a bit melancholy. These songs were terrible, no question about it, but they had a certain charm of “beating the system.” Like during prohibition when people would buy grape juice concentrate that contained explicit instructions on how NOT to turn the product into wine, these corporate birthday songs were winking at the fact they couldn’t sing the actual birthday song, but that they had to do something to get the point across when they handed out the free slice of cake.

Some of the songs played into the sympathy of the birthday party, hoping some mild complaining might lead to a greater tip.

Chili’s Birthday Song:

Happy happy birthday,

From the Chili’s crew,

We wish it was our birthday

So we could party too.

HEY!

This song is sung at a lightning quick pace, because the grumbling wait staff has to get back to the drudgery of serving you. Don’t worry, Chili’s wait staff, I’m sorry I came here too.

Some restaurant birthday songs are perplexing at best. Case in point:

Longhorn Steakhouse’s song:.

Fried chicken,

Country hog,

It’s your birthday:

Hot dog!

Aside from the fried chicken, none of these items appear on Longhorn’s menu. The closest to “country hog” is the babyback ribs, there is no hot dog mentioned. I know these songs are drek, but if the song is going to be a list of food, shouldn’t one of them be steak?

At least Longhorn Steakhouse had the common decency to include the word “birthday” in their song.

Applebee’s All-Purpose Celebration Song:

Applebee’s is fun, it’s true,

Especially when we sing for you.

Good news is we sing for free!

Bad news is we sing off key!

Did the Applebee’s legal team think that merely uttering the word “birthday” was enough for Warner/Chappell to file suit? Is this song applicable to other non-birthday situations? Have you ever heard it belted out when someone was at Applebees celebrating something other than a birthday? Actually, have you ever seen someone celebrating something at Applebees that wasn’t a birthday? It’s not exactly the kind of place you go to after you get your doctorate.

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The last bars of these songs will soon be sung. Will anyone miss them? Well … no. I’m certain the wait staff will be happy to no longer have to train newbies to hit the high note in the refrain and patrons will be happy to groan along with a song they actually know. Everybody wins.

Except Warner/Chappell. But don’t feel bad for them. In fact, there is a way you can express your sympathy for their current dilemma. Warner/Chappell celebrates their 204th (wow) corporate birthday on October 18th this year. Just call them up and sing them a quick “Happy Birthday to you,” this year; I’m sure they’d love it.

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Copy Editor Wes Burns is a Sunday columnist. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. Contact Wes Burns at 641-753-6611 or wburns@timesrepublican.com.