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Marquee Names: Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” and the Art of Recontextualization

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Stevie Wonder’s reworking of the tradition “Happy Birthday” song offers great example of
how to recontextualize music.

Singing “Happy Birthday To You” at birthday parties is a long-held (since the early 1980s) by many black Americans. I was first indoctrinated into this distinctly black American cultural tradition when I was three years old. Well, at least that’s my first memory of hearing the song being sung. But the reality is, the tradition of singing the “Happy Birthday” song — not the Stevie Wonder’s reworking — to the birthday boy or girl dates back to 1893.

Written by two American sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, while they were both school teachers in Louisville, KY, “Happy Birthday to You” or simply “Happy Birthday,” went on to become the traditional song sung in America for the marking of the anniversary of someone’s birthday. The tradition had grown so strong that by the middle of the twentieth-century, it was already the most popular song in the English language. But the “Happy Birthday” song holds far greater significance than it’s sheer popularity.

In an unbearably long and dark period in America, where overt racism and legalized segregation governed the day, the “Happy Birthday” song was one of very few cultural traditions that was truly integrated. In black and white homes alike, the “Happy Birthday” song was the song that family and friends used to mark the anniversary of the birth of someone dear to them. This simple, but oh so enduring lyric, required no music or any special singing skills. Anyone with a pulse and a voice could croon out the “Happy Birthday” song and make it sound great; and if you happened to be the birthday boy or girl being honored, it sounded magnificent no matter who was singing it. So as it was, sometime around my fifth or sixth birthday, I consciously allowed myself to be inducted into the “Happy Birthday” phenomenon. Little did I know that by my seventh birthday, I would once again be inducted into a new “Happy Birthday” phenomenon.

In 1980, nearly 90 years after the inception of “Happy Birthday”, Stevie Wonder released Hotter Than July, his biggest selling and perhaps most pivotal recording to date. Among the many hit singles on the album was the gem of a little ditty called “Happy Birthday.” At the time, Wonder was one of the key figures of the campaign to have the Martin Luther King, Jr. day become a national holiday. As a means for drawing more attention and energy to the cause, Wonder fashioned his own new interpolation of an old American tradition into a pop song. In effect, he transformed the “Happy Birthday,” (originally written by two white kindergarten teachers), into a global celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nearly anyone who has ever sang “Happy Birthday” over a birthday cake has done so a cappella, that is, without musical accompaniment. So on the face of it, this odd re-conceptualizing and re-rendering of a great American tradition sounds unbelievable, indeed impossible. However, drawing on his influence from Bob Marley and African-based musics of the time, wonder created a soulful, upbeat arrangement that reconfigured the idea of the “Happy Birthday” song into an uplifting cry for social/human recognition, national achievement, and plain old fashion fun.

On November 2, 1983, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday was signed into existence by President Ronald Reagan. As a pre-teen growing up listening to and singing along with Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” the underscoring significance and magnitude was nearly lost on me. I had recognized the fact that, for many black Americans, Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday” had replaced one tradition with another. With its intuitively celebratory rhythm and soulful rephrasing of the main happy birthday lyric, one could easily understand how and why it displaced the Hill sister’s original rendition. But it was the full impact and underlying power that Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” was able to provide, in addition to its get-up-and-boogie style quality, that perhaps stuck with me the most.

Birthday party memories of punch, drunk uncles and aunts, and kids (mostly cousins) running around still dart through my mind regularly. But when I think about all of the fun and cheer that Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” provided, I can’t help but smile at how he was able to sneak in some knowledge at the same time.

The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Stevie Wonder – “Happy Birthday”

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About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual