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Gilles Vigneault – Gens du pays (1975)

A U.S. federal court ruled this week that it's time to drop Warner/Chappell's 80-year-old copyright on the Happy Birthday song. For decades, artists have been constrained in their use of one of the western world's best-known refrains. A melody that freely sailed through our most private spaces, down 100-million phone lines, whispered to babies, bellowed to the dying – but if ever it was uttered in a movie or on an album, Warner/Chappell demanded a fat cheque. As a result, Happy Birthday To You is oddly absent from the cultural record. Kermit the Frog never sang Happy Birthday; neither did Jerry Seinfeld. Candles on cakes are soundlessly extinguished. Actors cheer but rarely raise a tune.

It all seems strange because Happy Birthday doesn't feel like Midnight Rambler or Careless Whisper. It doesn't feel like a song with a modern songwriter, with heirs who could live off the rights. More than O Canada or even Auld Lang Syne, it feels obvious, antediluvian, part of society's shared commons. It has only six words. One of them is your name.

For me, the most interesting contrast to Happy Birthday To You is the birthday song sung here in Quebec. Although some people still chant "Bonne fête à toi!," as I was taught at French-immersion school in Ottawa, there's a gorgeous, bittersweet alternate. The music and lyrics were written in 1975 by Gilles Vigneault and Gaston Rochon, who viewed Bonne fête's bland translations as colonialist twaddle.

Gilles Vigneault – Gens du pays

“Ma chère [name],” go Vigneault’s lines, “ c’est à ton tour / de te laisser parler d’amour.” In English: “My dear [name], it’s now your turn...” And then a double meaning: either “to let yourself talk about love” or “to let us express our love to you.”

Whereas the anglo birthday song is sing-songy and banal, Vigneault and Rochon’s is intimate and refined. They omit any explicit reference to the occasion, stating simply that it’s “your turn” – a nod to shared experiences and passing time. In Happy Birthday, the word “dear” is a throw-away; here it’s an unambiguous “my dear,” special and personal, underlined by the use of ton and te over the formal votre and vous. It discards Happy Birthday’s powerless wish for an abstract happiness, asking instead that the subject recognize the love around them and – for once! – turn themselves over to it. All this across a melody that’s burnished and subtle, lifting and falling like a pendulum.

No wonder Quebec separatists adopted Vigneault and Rochon’s birthday song as a kind of national anthem: In addition to birthdays it is sung at rallies and at the end of referendum concession speeches. And in a bizarre way I like that Quebec’s birthday song has multiple meanings, historical context and clear (rights-protected) authorship. It feels more honest that way. Happy Birthday To You always seemed too generic to have an author – that’s why Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim seemed so strange. Our birthdays deserve better: anthems as distinct as our circuits round the sun.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.