Birthday Dirge


“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,