Several years ago the filmmaker Jennifer Nelson set about to make a documentary on the most popular song in the English language, “Happy Birthday to You,” and ended up challenging the music-publishing industry on the legality of its long-standing copyright. After discovering that the copyright’s owner since 1988, Warner/Chappell Music, might not have had the right to collect royalties for the song, Nelson became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company.
She won the case in 2016 and the verdict is widely seen as a victory for the musicians, filmmakers, and other artists who’d been previously unable to incorporate “Happy Birthday to You” in their work due to prohibitive licensing costs. To commemorate the effective release of the song into the public domain, we’ve arranged it two ways: one a strum-along that even the newbie can easily master, and the other in the chord-melody style, for more intermediate players to dig into.
The strum-along contains the most basic chords—the I, the V, and the IV (in the key of C major, C, G7, and F). To transition smoothly between these open shapes, use an economy of movement: Don’t lift your third finger when moving from C to G7; just slide it down a fret. As for the pick hand, in Fred Sokolow’s strumming lesson, he includes a waltz pattern that’s perfect for this song.
In the chord-melody version, most of the melody notes are harmonized. The harmonies don’t stray too far from those in the strum-along, but are more detailed; in bar 5, for instance, you play the C chord in three different inversions. Throughout, the ringing open fourth string adds textural and harmonic color; the occasional sixth chord lends a Hawaiian flavor. Add a little emphasis to the melody notes, and really try to make it sing.