A tribute to the magnificent Hill Sisters of Louisville, KY

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Courier-Journal – March 2, 2017

Backers pursue search for Happy Birthday Park site

Now, a group of devotees is continuing the search for a suitable site for the Happy Birthday Park to honor the late ladies who were pioneers in the field of early childhood education. They wrote the music to what’s now “Happy Birthday to You” in the late 1880s and published the music as “Good Morning to All” in 1893.

Armed with a conceptual park design and having raised about $40,000 in seed money, the Happy Birthday Park board, composed of 14 business, civic, and community activists, is discussing possible sites for the tribute development with city officials, the waterfront agency, and other undisclosed parties.

“We would rather do it right than do it fast,” said businesswoman Maggie Payette Harlow, the Happy Birthday Park board president and also the CEO of Signarama Downtown. “It is worth waiting in order to find the perfect site and the right partners” to help develop the park.

►FROM 2014: Happy Birthday Park supporters seek money

►RELATED: Celebrating Our History | Meet The Hill Sisters

The park probably will require a minimum of two acres and will cost at least several million to develop, Harlow said, with fund-raising to follow selection of a site.

The design firm Solid Light has developed a conceptual site plan, the key elements of which probably can be adapted to nearly any preferred location, Harlow said.

Among the proposed elements are: A large keyboard that visitors could step on to play songs that would naturally include “Happy Birthday to You,” a karaoke capability with a large screen that would display the image of the singer and also could be used to show videos, and a kiosk at which people could email birthday greetings to friends around the globe.

The park board of directors last year rejected a site offered by developer and architect Bill Weyland behind the Henry Clay event venue near Third and Chestnut streets. Although it was a high-profile location, the board concluded that the property was simply too small to do the Hill sisters justice, Harlow said, adding that “we wanted a more impressive way to honor them. We wanted to go big.”

Harlow said the group continues to scour possible sites and is having ongoing talks with city officials about city-owned property and also with the Waterfront Development Corp.

David Karem, executive director of the waterfront agency, said the Happy Birthday Park “could be a good fit” in the planned next phase of Waterfront Park, down river along the floodwall in the vicinity of Ninth and 14th streets.

“We are having a continuing dialogue” with Harlow and her board, Karem said. He noted that the Waterfront Park expansion probably won’t proceed until around 2020, or until some Metropolitan Sewer District projects in the expansion target area are completed.

Harlow acknowledged that one suggested location for the Happy Birthday Park has been the long-abandoned, city-owned Louisville Gardens. The Gardens “is still on the list and hasn’t been discarded,” she said, adding that possible sites could be either under roof or outdoors – but ideally at a spot that is centrally located and easily accessible.

Harlow expressed confidence that once a site is picked, fund-raising will be successful. She said grants and donations will be sought from corporations, foundations, and individuals, with the sale of naming rights and sponsorships for different parts of the project likely.


Harlow said the Hill sisters were viewed as radical innovators in early childhood education. “They focused on free play and collaboration,” she said.

Harlow said that the Solid Light plans are viable and continue to be the basis for shopping the project to potential land providers.

Mildred (1859-1916) and Patty Smith Hill (1868-1946) were born in Anchorage in eastern Jefferson County, the daughters of William Hill, a Presbyterian preacher. The women were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996.

Marsha Weinstein, a Happy Birthday Park board member and former executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, said the goal is to “create a remarkable, irresistible Louisville landmark that celebrates the idea of education through play” – as well as honoring the legacy of the Hill sisters.

A 17-space surface parking lot on West Main Street near Ninth Street was dedicated in 2002 as the Happy Birthday Lot, an attempt by then-Mayor Dave Armstrong to honor the Hill sisters that some Happy Birthday Park supporters consider an inadequate tribute.

The copyright on the birthday song has been designated as legally being in the public domain.

Reporter Sheldon S. Shafer can be reached at (502) 582-7089, or via email at sshafer@courier-journal.com.

The Guardian – July 1, 2016

For years, global music publisher Warner/Chappell claimed copyright of the Happy Birthday song, demanding payment for any public performance of it. Jenn Nelson tells the story of her four-year campaign to prove that the company did not in fact own the rights to the world-famous song, whose tune was composed by two sisters in Kentucky in 1893. A judge’s decision on 30 June to approve a $14m settlement means the song is now in the public domain.

american Musicological society annual meeting, louisville, Ky – November 13, 2015

Mildred Jane Hill was more than a kindergarten songwriter.  She studied and inscribed dozens of African American street calls which she heard in the streets of Old Louisville where she and her sisters lived at the turn of the 19th-20th century.  “Strawberries! Strawberries! 40 cents a crate!” Musicologist Michael Beckerman, Ph.D., of New York University, claims that Ms Hill reflected these street calls in her other songwriting, including the now-famous Good Morning To You. But that’s not all. She may have inspired sections of Antoni Dvorak’s New World Symphony as well. In this fascinating lecture, Dr Beckerman explores Mildred Hill’s historical and musical contexts, her amazing correspondence with Mr Dvorak, her scholarly interest in street calls, and her other compositions for piano and voice.

CCTV America – October 22, 2015

It is perhaps the most famous song in the world, sung by nearly everyone, at least, once a year.  It’s Happy Birthday, a song sung at birthday celebrations without a second thought. Up until recently, Happy Birthday came with a price if it was used in commercial television, movies or public events. That’s because music company Warner Chappell claimed to own the copyright, but guess what, it didn’t. CCTV America’s May Lee has the story of how an independent filmmaker blew the cover on this dark secret.

National Public Radio – September 16, 2015

A forgotten handwritten version of Good Morning to All was found in Mildred Hill’s archived papers at the University of Louisville music library.  The library’s director,  James Procell, recognized the words right away, but being a musician, he could easily see that the tune wasn’t the same as the one we all know.

“Mildred would compose the songs, Patty almost always wrote the words,” Procell says. “Patty, who was a kindergarten teacher, would take the songs to her class, try them out, and if the kids had trouble singing a particular note, or it was too high or too low, or the rhythm was too complicated, she would bring the songs back to Mildred, and Mildred would revise them.”

Mildred died way back in 1916, before Happy Birthday to You  became a hit.  “She never realized that this song would go on to become one of the most popular songs in the world,” Procell says.

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