Boy Scout Birthday Dirge

Contextual Data: We had gone out to dinner to celebrate my Uncle’s birthday, and once we returned home, my family was talking and joking as we debated whether or not to put a candle on my Uncle’s cake and actually sing “Happy Birthday.” My brother then piped up and recounted this “Birthday Dirge” that he learned when he was younger. I asked him to sing it, and after, I asked him about when and where he heard it. He replied that he learned it at Boy Scout camp, when he was about fifteen years old — the counselors taught it to him: they would sing it in the morning in the mess hall as the campers were eating breakfast, whenever a camper was celebrating his birthday.

Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
There is sorrow in the air,
People dying everywhere,
But Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)

The song is sung as a sort of chant, and my family did chuckle a bit after he recited it. My Uncle offered a sarcastic “thanks.”

My brother said that they all loved it at camp. He enjoyed sharing it with others because he found it funny. He did qualify it by saying that he had taught it to some of  his friends when he returned home, and not everyone reacted the same way. Some laughed, others found it inappropriate and random. (He mentioned that gender didn’t really play a part when it came to this — some girls found it hilarious and some guys found it idiotic and vice versa). I actually remembered my brother teaching it to me after he first returned from camp, and I shared it with my friends to similar reactions — some laughed, others dismissed it.

He mentioned that the song was never taken seriously or meant to be a sobering song — and to expand upon this, in some ways, this song does seem to be a bit of a practical joke that taps into this idea of a birthday as a liminal phase, as a person transitions from one year into the next. The song subverts the traditional expectation that a person be wished well and bidden good luck as they move into a new year of their life and that’s where the humor seems to come from. More than this, in American culture in particular, birthdays are thought of as a person’s “special day,” but this song seems to mock that idea through both the lyrics and the somber tone in which it is sung.

Beyond that, it’s so short and repetitive that it is really easy to remember: my informant still recollected it nine years after he first learned it. I imagine the context of learning it at Boy Scout camp also helped — it was a fun experience and one that he remembered fondly.