USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘birthday song’
Musical

Birthday Dirge

Text:

“Oh happy Birthday, Oh happy Birthday
Worms and germs are in the air
People dying everywhere
Oh happy Birthday, Oh happy Birthday”

Genre: Folk Song

Background: The interviewee, KP, is an American man nearing his mid-fifties. KP resides in northern California, and his family has been in the states since the second ship after the Mayflower.He also states that he doesn’t know its exact origins, but assumes they are from the South (where he and his ancestors grew up). KP notes that the birthday song was originally passed down orally by his mother. The conversation was brought up after overhearing this song at a family birthday celebration, where he states the song is traditionally sung at since others cultures may not approve of such dark and depressing nature. This depressing nature, however, is not how KP sees the song, he states they “sing it just to be funny and change up the traditional happy birthday song, and never sang it to be mean just to have fun.”

Nationality: American
Location: the South (transitioned into west coast)
Language: English

Interpretation: My initial reaction of hearing this dark and dreary birthday song was the thought of “ Who would want to hear this on their Birthday?” Often when celebrating a birthday we are trying to ignore the fact that we are growing a step closer to our impending deaths and this song seems to capitalize on this fear. After going into a deeper analysis of this text I found that the song or refrain is a variation of the Birthday Dirge a/k/a “The Barbarian Birthday Song”, “The Viking Birthday Song”, “The SCA Birthday Dirge”. This Dirge is sung to the melody of a Russian folk tune known as, The Volga Boatmen” (a 1926 American silent drama film). The Dirge often varies in lyrics based upon who it is being sung to and often is comprised of only 2-3 verses. It is said that after each refrain of “Happy Birthday”, often in Russian tradition, the noise “HUHN”-like a grunt, or a thump on the table or floor is produced. This thumping aspect has not followed into KB’s Birthday Dirge which I find extremely interesting as it is a quite prominent attribute to the Russian rendition. In addition to the thump or lack thereof, I found that the lyrics are slightly different from those recorded in the article I found; the only commonality being the line “People dying everywhere.”

Larson, Grig -Punkie-. “History of the Birthday Dirge.” Punkie’s Web Page – Lyrics for Viking/Barbarian Birthday Dirge, 2019, punkwalrus.net/cybertusk/viking_birthday_dirge.html.

Customs
Holidays
Life cycle
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Birthday songs for Colombians in the US and in Colombia

When I explained the scope of the of the folklore projects that it could include folksongs, Juliana did think of one that she has heard here in Southern California a lot. In Colombia when a girl turns 15 (American equivalent to sweet 16) there is an elaborate party with musicians typically “mariachis” who will sing “Las Manaitas” song. Usually becomes a father-daughter dance. But this is the only time it is sung because it is a special time in a girl’s life when she become a woman.

“Estas son las mañanitas que cantaba el rey David.

Hoy por ser día de tu santo, te las cantamos a ti.

Despierta mi bien, despierta, mira que ya amaneció

ya los pajaritos cantan la luna ya se metió.

Qué linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte

venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte.

El día en que tu naciste nacieron todas las flores

y en la pila del bautismo cantaron los ruiseñores.

Ya viene amaneciendo, ya la luz el día nos dio.

Levántate de mañana mira que ya amaneció.”

(Translated: These are the little mornings that King David used to sing.

Today being the day of your saint, we sing them to you. Wake up my dear, wake up, see that the day has already dawned, the little birds are already singing, the moon has already set. How lovely is this morning, when I come to greet you, we all come with joy and pleasure to greet you. The day on which you were born all the flowers first were born, and in the baptismal font all the nightingales sang. It already comes dawning, the day already gave us light. Rise up with the morning and see that it’s already dawned.)

Recently, in Colombia, the song has gained popularity and is sung at small children birthday parties as well but never to other teenagers or adults especially not to men. Juliana, was at a birthday party recently in Santa Monica for a fellow male student, who was from Mexico City, and they sung La Mañanitas followed by the English version of the Happy Birthday song. She was surprised that everyone seemed to expect it. I asked her what other song is sung when an adult has a birthday in Colombia? She said it is the same chords to the American Happy Birthday song but the words are different:

“Feliz cumpleaños ha ti,

desudamos feliz,

que los saigas cúmplanlo

hasta año 3000 mil!”

(Translation, “Happy birthday to you, we wish you much happiness, we hope you have more birthdays, until the year 3000 AD.)

Analysis: Having been to countless Latino birthday parties, here in Los Angeles, what usually occurs is that both Spanish songs and the English version of Happy Birthday song are sung because that way you get to make more wishes and make a lot more noise, which seems like the goal of most Latino parties in general. It usually starts with Las Mañanitas and will continue to Feliz Cumpleaños followed by the Happy Birthday song. This allows for plenty of time to take pictures and get candle wax all over the cake. The songs seem to cement the occasion and be the final mark of the birthday festivities. People usually understand that once the cake is served after the songs then the party is going to come to an end unless of course there is a band or DJ, which means the party is now really getting started and will continue until very late or early morning. The actually singing by all the participants seems significant because it is not about talent or pitch of the voices but the unified showing of support and love for the birthday person.

general
Life cycle
Musical

A Happy Birthday song

A Happy Birthday song

My friend Kirsten is a fellow freshman at the University of Southern California, studying International Relations, as well as someone with whom I went to high school and preschool in Pasadena, CA. In the intervening time between our shared educational experiences, she attended a small, alternative K-8 school, also in Pasadena, called Sequoyah. The third child in a family of four children, she has an older brother, an older sister, and a younger sister who each, also, attended Sequoyah. She shared with me the birthday song (distinct from the copyrighted, ‘traditional’ “Happy Birthday to You”) that was sung throughout the school year upon the occasion of any classmate’s birthday.

(See hyperlink at top for tune.) The lyrics go:

“It makes me think of the good old days,

Happy birthday to you!

You’ve sure grown out of your baby ways,

Happy birthday to you!

It’s your [age – i.e. “15th] birthday, wish you many more,

Health and wealth and friends by the score,

Let’s cut the cake and let’s eat some more,

Happy birthday to you!”

 

She describes that, “The way we did it at Sequoyah would be like every time someone had a birthday, they would bring dessert for the class, and then, after school, we’d all gather and eat whatever they had and then we’d sing the song. So whenever it was someone’s birthday we’d sing that,” and “you did it from first grade to eighth grade, it was the whole school,” the whole school career, and evidently sung multiple times per year. Though she doesn’t know when or from where the song originated, she knows that it was a school birthday tradition at least since before her brother started at the school, four or five years before she did so herself. But the interesting thing to note is that, for her at least, the song transcended school tradition and entered into her birthday ‘vernacular’ at home: “At home, we do both. We’ll sing the normal happy birthday song, and then me and my little sister will sing the song – ‘cus, like, we both do [it] every birthday even though my brother and my older sister have stopped singing it… So, like, me and [my younger sister] keep doing it.” Though she and another mutual friend with whom she attended Sequoyah never sang the song for any of our friends’ birthdays in high school, it was mentioned a few times, which I recalled and so asked her to sing it for me for this post. She went on to say that “part of actually why me and [my sister] keep singing it is that it [a birthday] doesn’t really feel complete if we don’t sing it, or like, I don’t know if I would necessarily teach it to my kids or something to that extent, but I guess, in my own family, or like if were to do it with [our mutual friend] or someone [i.e. another Sequoyah alum], then I would feel like I would have to sing it.” This statement seems to indicate that the song is meaningful for my friend, not just as a traditional piece of her childhood that she “Can’t remember a time, really, where [she] didn’t sing it,” but as symbol of unity and a marker of identity and belonging among students and alumni of her school.

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