Do you know the birthday song? We bet you do! People all over the world sing a version of “Happy Birthday to You.” It’s even been played in OUTER SPACE! Way less well-known, though, is the story behind the song, and the sisters who wrote it! Listen in to hear Elysse tell Joy the story, so she can get inspiration for her own quest to write a solar-system famous song.  Plus, an all new birthday themed First Things First featuring birthday cakes, wrapping paper and piñatas! (edited) 

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JOY DOLO: Do you love the birthday song?

ALL: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Do you love having a reason to sing with your friends?

ALL: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Do you wish you had more reasons every day to break into song with strangers to mark mundane daily tasks?

WOMAN 1: Yes?

MAN: I think so.

WOMAN 2: Totally.

JOY DOLO: Then, Joy's Joyful Songbook is the book for you. I, Joy Dolo, have written 87 cheerful tunes to commemorate the events that make our lives sing. Among these darling ditties, you'll find a song to cheer on people as they parallel park.

(SINGING) Back the space with a smile on your face. Don't hit the other car. Now, you're a parking star.

A song to greet your mail carrier every day.

(SINGING) There's a piece of mail in your hand. What could it be? Is it a bill or a catalog, a special letter for me?

A song to say good job to the diligent dog owner picking up their dogs doo doo.

(SINGING) Look at you. You picked up a poo. And now, you get to walk across the land with a plastic bag of poop in your hand. A bag of poop in your hand.

That's the background singers. Plus, 84 other songs to make every day a day worth celebrating.

ELISE: And don't forget the song to celebrate the start of a new episode of Forever Ago.

JOY DOLO: The most important one.

(SINGING) This is Forever Ago, a history podcast to make your brains grow. Welcome to Forever Ago, where we explore the before. I'm Joy Dolo, and this is my co-host, Elise.

ELISE: Hi, everyone. You can't see this because this is a podcast, but Joy is literally surrounded by stacks and stacks of sheet music.

JOY DOLO: It's true.

ELISE: But why?

JOY DOLO: Well, I was at my great aunt's birthday party over the weekend. The cake comes out and, literally, the whole room, at the same moment, starts singing Happy Birthday. You know the song.

ELISE: Yeah.

(SINGING) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.

JOY DOLO: That's the one. And it hit me. Everyone in this room knows this song. In fact, everyone at every birthday party I've ever been to knows this song. And it's not just in the United States. This same happy birthday song is sung in different languages all over the world.


And it's not just on Earth. The Mars Curiosity Rover sang happy birthday to itself on the planet Mars.

Happy birthday is the most famous song in the solar system.

ELISE: I mean, I get it. That song is so catchy, so easy to learn.

JOY DOLO: So I thought to myself, Joy, you have an amazing ear for music.

ELISE: You do.

JOY DOLO: Joy, you have a way with lyrics.

ELISE: Absolutely.

JOY DOLO: Joy, you should try to write the next most famous song in the solar system. I mean, how hard could it be?

ELISE: Well, I have no doubt in your songwriting skills, but it took a pretty unique set of circumstances and some extraordinary people working really hard to write the birthday song.

JOY DOLO: Tell me more. Maybe I can recreate this perfect storm of musical world domination. I bet my picking up poop song could go viral. No song is really cornered that market yet.

ELISE: OK, I'll tell you how the birthday song happened. Settle in, as I bring you the tale of the remarkable, unbreakable, unshakable, Hill Sisters.

JOY DOLO: Ooh, I got my popcorn and my comfy pants on. I'm ready.

ELISE: It's the late 1860s. There is no internet, no television, no radios. People could send messages using telegraph machines, the first way to send long distance messages quickly.

JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah. You could send a code of little beeps that could be translated into words, letter by letter. Doesn't seem fast now. But before that, you had to send letters that would be carried by foot, horse, or train.

ELISE: And this is right after the Civil War.

JOY DOLO: That's when the United States was at war with itself. The main reason-- slavery. It was the South versus the North, the Confederacy versus the Union.

ELISE: Our story takes place in Kentucky, which was right on the border between the North and the South. Slavery had just been outlawed, and Louisville, one of the biggest cities in Kentucky, was growing fast. And this is where the Hill Sisters grew up.

(SINGING) Mildred, Patty, and Jessica. Mildred, Patty, and Jessica.

OK, there was also another sister and two brothers, but it didn't fit with the Hamilton bit I wanted to include.


ELISE: The Hill kids had parents who believed they should all be educated and go to college, even the girls.

JOY DOLO: Ooh, that was unusual back then.

ELISE: Definitely. They were also encouraged to not worry about getting married and focus on work that was meaningful to them.

JOY DOLO: Whoa, double unusual.

ELISE: Yeah, so that's exactly what they did. Jessica went on to become a professor at Columbia University in New York City, and Mary became a school superintendent in Louisville.


ELISE: But today, we're focusing on Mildred and Patty, the two Hill sisters who brought you the birthday song. First up, we have Patty.

PATTY: That's me. I've been called the godmother of childhood.

ELISE: That's because Patty developed kindergarten in the United States. At least, how we know it today.

JOY DOLO: I loved kindergarten. Thanks, Patty.

PATTY: Before me, school was a bit, uptight. I made sure my kindergartners were free to play, be creative, and try out their problem solving skills.

ELISE: She knew all about the latest education research. She helped set up special colleges for teachers. And like her sister Jessica, she eventually ended up a professor at Columbia University.

PATTY: But being with the kids is the best part of my job.

ELISE: The other half of this dynamic duo is Mildred. Mildred loved music.

MILDRED: I played piano and the organ. I composed songs, and I was also a music critic, a historian, and an ethnographer.

ELISE: That means she traveled around, recording the folk songs and church music being sung at the time.

JOY DOLO: But back then, you couldn't just stick a microphone in front of someone and capture their sound. Because the gear you need to record people didn't really exist yet. So how did that work?

MILDRED: It's true. We didn't have recording devices like you do, but we had pen and paper. So I transcribed them. That means, I wrote down the melodies I heard as musical notes, like what you'd see on sheet music.

JOY DOLO: Hey, I love sheet music, too. You Hill sisters are the best.

MILDRED: You're pretty spiffy, too, Joy.

ELISE: Mildred also transcribed street cries.

JOY DOLO: What's a street cry?

ELISE: You know, when you're at a baseball game, and you hear, hot dogs, hot dogs, get your hot dogs. That's a street cry.

MILDRED: Right. Back in my day, street cries were how people told each other what they were selling. We didn't have those tiny black rectangles you all seem to use to find the news and buy things. So we had people literally walking down the street, calling out what they had for sale. Here are a few examples.

VENDOR 1: Get your cool strawberries, strawberries, ripe cherries, ripe cherries.

VENDOR 2: Here's your morning papers.

JOY DOLO: Wow, what a musical world you lived in.

MILDRED: I'm glad you see it that way. Music is everywhere if your ears are open to it.

ELISE: And here's where the dynamic duo teamed up.

PATTY: I believed a kindergarten classroom needed to have good, simple songs to engage our little learners.

MILDRED: Good simple melodies that were easy for children to sing and remember.

PATTY: And good simple lyrics that could find their way into their hearts forever.

ELISE: So they got to work. Mildred would compose a melody, and Patty would write the words.


PATTY: Happy Monday morning, whether rain or shine.

ELISE: Then, Patty would share the song with her students.

ALL: Happy Monday morning, whether rain or shine. Little children start from home and run to school by 9:00.

ELISE: And if it seemed too hard for the class to sing and remember, she brought it back to Mildred, and they made changes.

PATTY: Maybe-- maybe a little more repetition? Yes, and I think if we simplify this phrase here.

ELISE: And repeat until they were happy with the result. That's how this melody was born.


JOY DOLO: That's how happy birthday was written? OK, I didn't realize it was so much work to write a world famous song.

ELISE: Well, it was a lot of work, but it was also a little luck, which is a pretty good spot for a cliffhanger, right, Joy?

JOY DOLO: Ooh, Elise, you're getting good at this. Are we the new dynamic duo?

ELISE: I think we might be.

JOY DOLO: Then, you must be thinking, what I'm thinking.

ELISE: Oh, yeah.

BOTH: It's time for--

ALL: First things first.

JOY DOLO: It's the game where we try to guess the order things came in history. Today, we've got birthday cakes, pinatas, and wrapping paper. OK, Elise, which one of these do you think is oldest?

ELISE: I think it was birthday cakes.

JOY DOLO: Oh, birthday cakes is the oldest? OK, do you do you have a guess why?

ELISE: I think it's because of the recipes. People already had, I don't know, like to make it, maybe? So I would say that one for the first one because of how easy it is to make.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, like a sweet bread. It's like, of course, they've been making sweet bread for forever.

ELISE: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: So we have birthday cakes as the oldest, and then pinatas and wrapping paper as the other two.

ELISE: OK. So I would say, wrapping paper for the second one.


ELISE: And why I would say that is because-- I mean, you have to do this for Christmas, for presents. So I would say it's probably been around for a pretty long time. Because people have been giving presents and receiving them. So I think it's been around for quite a bit.

JOY DOLO: Wrapping paper has been a necessity forever.

ELISE: Yeah, exactly.

JOY DOLO: I need presents yesterday. Get that wrapping paper, y'all.

ELISE: Exactly. And then, lastly, I would say pinatas. Because pinatas is like a tradition for some cultures. So I would say most recently because it hasn't been like a really big thing. But, yeah, I would say that's the newest one because it's at birthday parties most of the time, but, sometimes, not.

JOY DOLO: That's true. You know, I actually have a backyard party, and I got a pinata just for fun.

ELISE: Nice.

JOY DOLO: We'll be back with the answer after the credits.

ELISE: So keep listening.

JOY DOLO: Hello, forever amigos. It's me, Joy.

ELISE: And it's me, Elise.

JOY DOLO: And I'm trying to figure out how to write a world-famous, nay, solar system famous song. So far, we've learned that the Happy Birthday melody was designed by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill to be easy to remember and fun to sing.

ELISE: And the sisters did lots of different versions to get it right.

JOY DOLO: So that's a lot of work, but what was the luck?

ELISE: Well, that melody was not originally called happy birthday to you.


ELISE: It was called good morning to all.

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

JOY DOLO: OK. Mind blown. So you're saying there's still hope for look at you, you picked up a poo? If I get the right lyrics?

ELISE: I mean, maybe?

JOY DOLO: So how did a good morning song morph into the Happy Birthday song we all know and love?

ELISE: Kids and teachers love the melody, and they started using it for all kinds of songs. It could be a song to say goodbye at the end of the day.

ALL: Goodbye to you all. Goodbye to you all.

JOY DOLO: Ooh, maybe cleaning up.

ALL: It's time to clean up. It's time to clean up.

JOY DOLO: Or picking up your dog's poo.

ELISE: No, Joy.

ELISE: Or celebrating a birthday.

ALL: Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.

ELISE: And here's the thing about birthdays-- everyone has one. And sometimes, people get together for a party or gathering to celebrate.

JOY DOLO: And it's fun to sing with your friends.

ELISE: Exactly. And the song was already so catchy, and the lyrics were so easy to remember. So it quickly spread through the community.

JOY DOLO: But how did it get beyond Louisville?

MILDRED: We published our music. The book was originally called Song Stories for the Kindergarten.

PATTY: Teachers across the country and the world started using it, and the book was translated into several other languages.

JOY DOLO: OK. Wow, I've definitely got my work cut out for me.

PATTY: Yes, you do. And if you don't mind, I'd like to brag on my sister's behalf for just a moment. Not only did she write a solar system famous song, her work helped inspire this--


JOY DOLO: Oh, I know that song. It's Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony, a very famous piece of classical music. That stuff is my jam. But how did Mildred's work inspire it?

ELISE: Well, let's talk about what music was popular back then. Remember, this was over a century ago. The United States was a really young country, barely 100 years old.

JOY DOLO: Right. And radios and speakers hadn't been invented yet. The only way people could listen to music was if they either made it themselves or listened to other people sing or play instruments. Maybe they would play music on their pianos at home or go hear their local symphony play classical music.

ELISE: And since the country was still young, symphonies in the United States mostly played classical music inspired by Europe. But some music lovers in the US wanted to create their own American style of classical music, so they asked this famous composer named Dvorak for help.

JOY DOLO: But wasn't he from Czechoslovakia?

ELISE: Well, yes, but he had done something similar in his home country.

JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah. My boy Dvorak was great at taking a traditional classical music and infusing it with local Czech tunes and folk songs to make something that was uniquely Czech.

ELISE: Right. So Dvorak comes to the US and tried to do something similar for American music. I asked my friend Michael Beckerman to help me explain. He's a musician and music historian.

MICHAEL: He very quickly becomes excited by the idea of African-American music. He comes to believe that anything called American music should be based on African-American music.

ELISE: So Dvorak starts doing research and reads an article that will play a huge role in his work.

MICHAEL: The article was this prescription for how to create a kind of classical music based on African-American models, including six bits of music in musical notation, including Swing Low Sweet Chariot and several other tunes. So I thought this was fascinating. After reading it, I became convinced that it had played a profound role in Dvorak's decision to use Black music as a basis for American music.

JOY DOLO: And this article, the one that became so important to Dvorak's work, was written by Mildred.

ANTONIN: Excuse me, I need to interrupt.

JOY DOLO: Antonin Dvorak? The Antonin Dvorak? Composer of the New World Symphony?

ANTONIN: At your service. Now, this is a lovely story, and I did read an article about Black music in the United States, but it was not written by a woman. It was written by a man named Johann Tanzer.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, our music historian friend, Michael, was also pretty confused when he first came across the article. He wanted to learn more about this Johann. After doing lots and lots of searching, he finally discovered that there was no Johann.

MICHAEL: It became clear that the article had been written by a woman named Mildred Hill.

MILDRED: Yes, guilty as charged. In my day, journals were not exactly eager to publish articles by women, so I used a fake male name, Johann Tanzer.

ANTONIN: Oh, my, so you, the woman who helped write the birthday song, helped shape my symphony?

MILDRED: You're welcome.

JOY DOLO: Oh, my gosh, does that mean the birthday song and the New World Symphony are siblings or maybe cousins?

ANTONIN: Well, my symphony may not be as famous as the birthday song, but it has been called the most popular of all symphonies, so not far off.

JOY DOLO: But has your music been played in outer space?

ANTONIN: As a matter of fact, Neil Armstrong did bring a recording of the symphony to space with him for the first moon landing in 1969.

JOY DOLO: Holy buckets. Another solar system famous song?

ANTONIN: Indubitably. Now, if you will, a little exit music, please.


JOY DOLO: Bye, Dvorak.

ELISE: Yeah, thanks for the awesome music.

JOY DOLO: So not only did Mildred and her sister write one of the most popular songs ever, the birthday song, she also helped inspire a famous symphony she was hugely important to American music.

ELISE: Yeah. And Michael, the music historian, started discovering even more about Mildred's work the more he looked.

MICHAEL: I became more and more fascinated by Mildred Hill. Often, when you're on the trail of something really interesting, you find something even more interesting that you had no idea about, that just shows up by chance.

ELISE: So Michael started looking at all of Mildred's work. The music Mildred was most interested in recording was the music being made by Black Americans, hymns from Black churches and street cries of Black vendors. And he says, you can hear the presence of these street cries in happy birthday.

MICHAEL: You can see that some of these ideas, like [VOCALIZING]. She has street cries, [VOCALIZING], that look very much like happy birthday.

JOY DOLO: So not only did Mildred help create popular American songs, but she also made those songs using inspiration from everyday American voices.

ELISE: Totally. The amazing thing is that during their lives, Patty was the more famous sister. And a lot of Mildred's story wasn't pieced together until fairly recently. Now, it seems obvious that she was important, but it wasn't always that way. Michael says that's often how history works.

MICHAEL: I think, as a historian, you have to own up to a couple of critical truths, which is, you know, you access the past in many ways. You have documents. You have letters. You might have photographs, images of various kinds. And at some point, somebody strings them all together and basically tells a story using those things.

And if they're a good storyteller, it sounds to the listener, as if that's the only story that could be told. But the fact is, with any collection of documents and things from the past, there are thousand stories that could be told, all different, all with their own nuances.

ELISE: There's a lot about Mildred we'll never know. Her papers and letters were destroyed when she died.

JOY DOLO: Oh, man, what a bummer. I'd love to know more about her work, her friends, the jokes she told, the people she loved, whether she had a melody perfect for a poop picking up song.

ELISE: We do know, from the tributes after she died, that she had a lot of close friends and did a lot for her community.

MICHAEL: She wasn't just an amazingly beloved person in Louisville. People just adored her.

JOY DOLO: And will always have the birthday song.

ALL: Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear friend. Happy birthday to you.

JOY DOLO: Elise, thank you so much for sharing the story of the Hill sisters with me.

ELISE: It's always a pleasure, Joy.

JOY DOLO: You know, I think writing a solar system famous song might be a touch harder than I thought.

ELISE: You're probably right.

JOY DOLO: But the birthday song got me thinking, I really need to invent a new holiday. Everyone loves a holiday. How about spoon's day? A day to celebrate spoons. Oh, or sleepy Sundays. It's just a Sunday where you keep hitting snooze. I've done that before. No, I've got it. Pants-aversary, the yearly anniversary of the first time you wore pants.

And there could be a pansiata, a pinata shaped like pants, and it's full of actual pants. And this is so good. This is such a good idea. It's full of pants. You hit it, and then pants fall out. Or a zipper unzips. It unzips, and they fall out. No. No. It zips up. Oh, this is so good. Good stuff.

JOY DOLO: This episode was written by Molly Bloom, with production help from Nico Gonzalez Wisler, Rosie DuPont, Anna Goldfield, Ruby Guthrie, Anna Weigle, and Aaron Woldeslassie. It was edited by Sanden Totten and Shahla Farzan. Sound design by Rachel Breeze, theme music by Marc Sanchez.

Beth Perlman is our executive producer. We had engineering help from Zach Harney and Eric Romani. The executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati, Joanne Griffith, and Alex Schaffert. Many thanks to our birthday song singers, Andrea Bor, Angela Kim, Avery Trufelman, Jane Anderson, Kim Breeze, Max Barber, Molly Bloom, Raymond Neu, Ellie, and Anna Lee Rose. Special thanks also to Vernon Neal, Allison Thurston, and Lisa.

ELISE: Have a topic that you really want to know, the history of? Send it to us at

JOY DOLO: OK, Elise, ready to hear the answers for first things first?

ELISE: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Oh, great. Here it comes. I'm going to open it. Just a recap. If you remember, you chose the oldest as birthday cakes, and then wrapping paper, and then pinatas.


JOY DOLO: Drumroll, please. OK, so first up the oldest thing was actually pinatas.

ELISE: Really?

JOY DOLO: Yeah, pinatas is the oldest. We don't know exactly when these were first invented, but they're probably, at least, 800 years old. Whoa.


JOY DOLO: That's as old as me. That's when explorer Marco Polo first saw people in China filling figures of animals with seeds, then covering them with colored paper, and hitting them until the seeds came out. Like my pants thing. It's going to catch on, I swear. Historians believe the Aztecs may have also made something like pinatas by filling clay pots with tiny treasures, then covering them with feathers, and hitting them with a stick until the treats fell out.

ELISE: Oh, my God.

JOY DOLO: So it's been around forever.

ELISE: That's amazing, literally.

JOY DOLO: I did not see that coming. I really thought birthday cakes would be the oldest one because of the cake thing.

ELISE: Thank you. Thank you.

JOY DOLO: I believe in you.

ELISE: Everybody should believe in me. Believe in Elise.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. But the second up was birthday cakes. Actually, it was second. So yeah, that was invented in the 1700s, roughly. So ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians and the Greeks did celebrate birthdays, and they might have served cake at these celebrations.

But the birthday cake, as we know it, with its layers and icing, first became popular in Germany in the 1700s. Germans celebrated kids birthdays at parties called kinderfest and put lit candles on the table. But instead of having kids blow them out, they'd let them burn all day until dinner, and then eat the cake at dinner time. Would you look at that.


JOY DOLO: Yeah, I literally thought it was going to be like, oh, there was like cornmeal, that they lit on fire or something. But this is a lot more interesting and more intricate.

ELISE: Very much so.

JOY DOLO: And then last, but not least, is wrapping paper.

ELISE: I could not believe it, Joy.

JOY DOLO: Did you just flip a desk over?

ELISE: I almost did. I'm like, uh.

JOY DOLO: Wrapping paper was invented in 1917. People have been wrapping presents for a long time. In Japan, people have used a reusable cloth to wrap presents since, at least, the 1600s. But wrapping paper first became a thing in the 1800s, around the same time people started sending Christmas cards.

Wrapping paper became even more popular in 1917. Two brothers who ran a shop in Kansas City, Missouri, were using tissue paper to wrap customers gifts during the Christmas season. When they ran out, in a pinch, they used decorative paper that was usually used for lining envelopes.

The wrapping paper was popular, and they began selling it year after year. And now, we have wrapping paper. And those two brothers went on to found Hallmark.


JOY DOLO: Do you know those Hallmark cards?


JOY DOLO: Yeah, those guys did it. It was those guys.

ELISE: No way.

JOY DOLO: That's where Hallmark came from. That's like a whole other episode.


JOY DOLO: So what do you think about that? I mean, it was pretty close. I will say, I was thrown. I did not-- I was most surprised by the birthday cakes one. Which were you most surprised by?

ELISE: I was definitely most surprised by the wrapping paper.


ELISE: I was really surprised by that because I thought that was, like, almost-- I, actually, almost about to put it first.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. Yeah. So now, when you get your present this year for whatever holidays coming up next, you'll know that this is the newest thing. It's a new modern.

ELISE: I'm like, mom, you can give me more presents now because it's the newest one.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. It's a modern technology. Everybody, get wrapping paper.

ELISE: Yeah.

JOY DOLO: Well, we're taking a break for the summer, but we'll be back in the fall with a whole new batch of Forever Ago episodes. And if you subscribe to our Smarty Pass, you'll get sweet bonus content from Forever Ago and the other shows in the Brains On universe, all summer long.

ELISE: Thanks for listening.

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