The One Thing I Learned Today: The Happy Birthday Song

Last week, darkness settled over the dining room table and I was encircled by my family. Faced with the flames of chocolate cake sprinkled with sprinkles, the circle serenaded me with a familiar, antiquitous hymn. And then, in a moment iced with anticipation–where the earth stopped spinning, where all ocean waves flattened and froze, where time paused–I made a secret wish, exhaled one mighty breath, extinguished the flames and the room snapped hard dark. Someone flicked the lights on. The world spun again. The ocean waves rolled and crested again. Time ticked again. The circle clapped. I smiled. We celebrated this earthly ritual by enjoying the sugary confection.

Ok. That was an overwrought, long-winded description of such a commonplace scene that you probably have spectated and participated in before. To cut through the pedantic prose, last week it was my birthday and I had a cake and my family sang “Happy Birthday” to me and I blew out the candles, and then we ate cake.

A few days after my birthday– on the same day–my father and my daughter, Haley, celebrated their respective birthdays. And again the family participated in the ritual of celebrating their birth day. But this time we had two cakes, sang “Happy Birthday” twice and ate double the cake.

It’s birthday season in our house. We have birthdays for the next four months and my kids unanimously agree that their birthday is the best day.

“Because you were born?” I asked.

“No. Because we eat cake and get presents.”

I find it fascinating that every birthday–like your birthday– will be soundtracked by the same song. A song that acknowledges life. A song that acknowledges you. “Happy Birthday” has been translated into 18 different languages and, according to Guinness World Records, it is the most recognized song in the English language.

“Happy Birthday” was believed to be first published 1893 in a book titled, “Song Stories of the Kindergarten,” wherein “Happy Birthday,” was originally “Good Morning To All,” sung to the same melody.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “The song was written by two sisters, Mildred Hill, an organist, concert pianist and teacher and Patty Smith Hill, who wrote the lyrics to “Good Morning to All,” while serving as the principal of the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, where her sister, Mildred, was a teacher. Mildred wanted a song that was both welcoming and easy to remember. ”

Decades of copyright disputes and lawsuits followed with various music companies and musical productions that all claimed to rightfully created the song and its melody. Any singing of “Happy Birthday” between 1893 and 2015–122 years–was copyright infringement and hence illegal.

Finally, in 2015, a judge approved a settlement, officially put “Happy Birthday” in the public domain, and therefore made singing it legal.


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Patty Hill was a pioneer in early-childhood education. She introduced a progressive philosophy of early childhood teaching, which stresses the importance of children’s creativity and focuses on social and emotional well-being. And Mildred Hill was a musical prodigy and internationally known pianist. She traveled the world performing and was instrumental in interjecting American music with the music of other cultures.

Reports indicate the Hill sisters spent a lot of time with each other. Not only did they live together, they often collaborated on music projects and progressive ideas in both music and education. In 1996, the Hill sisters were posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And they are buried together in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.

For Haley, who turned 16 years old this year, a birthday is still a wistful entrance into a future glowing with possibility. But there will be some birthday, and please excuse my morbidity (I know, I was doing so well), where a birth day cues the relentless passing of time, crushing human frailty, and death. (I understand if you want to rescind my invitation to your birthday party.)

Beyond the cake and the presents, I’m curious to know what really makes a happy birthday. If a birthday marks a year lived–what truly makes a happy year? And how do we remain happy the next year?

Today, I learned about the lives and deaths of the Hill sisters and realized a happy life means doing meaningful things with meaningful people.

It’s just that simple.

Any day, not just a birthday, is a good day to ask yourself two fundamental questions:

1.How do I spend my time?

2.Who do I spend my time with?

And our happiness is determined by how we answer those questions. 

Around my 40th birthday, some seven years after I was diagnosed with an incurable brain disease, I came to accept it was my responsibility to make my living years my best years. To make “happy birthday” not just a wish but an earned truth. I’ll admit, some days I’m mired in self-pity and– alone–do futile things like write pretentious paragraphs. Yet other days, I do meaningful things with meaningful people.

And those days–like birthdays–are the best days.

Be well,


If you’ve been following my journey you know I have ataxia–a cruel, incurable brain disease that impairs walking, talking, motor skills and a bevvy of other important functions.

Ataxia research has long been underfunded and awareness has long been underpublicized.

On May 4th, the National Ataxia Foundation and I are hosting Philadelphia’s first “Yo Philly, Stand Up To Ataxia– A Night of Charity and Comedy” event to support ataxia research and increase public awareness. Our goal is to raise $15,000.

I encourage you to check out the event link, donate, and share the event link with your entire network! Thanks!

To Purchase Tickets and Make a Donation Click Here!


One Line One Love with Author Kymberly Dakin Neal: Episode 14– Listening with Curiosity

If you haven’t heard yet… my friend Gail Boenning and I recently launched a podblog called, One Line, One Love.

OLOL is a unique listening and reading experience that will inspire everyday writers, who dream of writing, to pick up their pens and write one line at a time.

This podblog format (a hybrid of a podcast and blog) is for everyday writers who–like me–often need a creative boost, a scrap of encouragement, and practical advice to unleash the writer within. Each episode consists of five wide-ranging, writer-focused questions and a weekly writing prompt.

Please check it out! And please share with any writer friends or anyone in your life who has ever considered picking up the pen.


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Warm greetings to everyone who found me on the University of Pennsylvania’s Ataxia Clinic’s website! Thanks for stopping by. I have ataxia and though I’m not a doctor, I hope my words comfort, encourage, empower, and serve as good company on your journey.


Jay Armstrong is a speaker and an award-winning author. Despite being diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, that impairs his movement, balance, eyesight, and speech–Jay presses on. The leader of the Philadelphia Ataxia Support Group, he hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life.

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