Michael Beckerman (New York University)

Louisville’s “Unconscious Composers”: Mildred Hill, the Courier’s Women’s Edition,
and How “Happy Birthday” Was Made from African American Street Cries

a presentation first given at the AMS Annual Meeting in Louisville, 13 November 2015

with guests:

Andrew Burgard (New York University)
James J. Holmberg (Curator of Collections, Filson Historical Society)
Mirjam Frank (Royal Holloway, University of London)
James Procell (Director of the Music Library, University of Louisville)
Maggie Payette Harlow (President, Patty and Mildred Hill Happy Birthday Park)

Anne Shreffler (Harvard University, AMS Vice President), Chair

Michael Beckerman describes his presentation as follows:

On 2 March 1895 Mildred Hill of Louisville, Kentucky wrote the following to Antonín Dvořák in New York:

Honored Sir.

May I address you upon a subject in which you seem to be much interested viz—street cries. After reading your article in the Feb Harper I looked up a collection of street cries I have been gathering for several years, and am writing an article for the Woman’s edition of the Courier Journal to be illustrated with these cries I send you.

Mildred Hill published the street cries several weeks later in an extensive article with numerous musical examples and detailed commentary in the so-called “Satin Edition” of the Louisville Courier Journal on 27 March 1895, an edition of the newspaper produced entirely by women. While this edition is a fascinating document, worthy of study on its own, the core of this presentation focuses rather on another passage from Hill’s letter:

I collected them [the street cries] just for the interest I took in them never expecting to make any use of them but since I began the study of composition I have found them very useful.

It is the argument of this presentation that Mildred Hill’s most famous composition, known today as “Happy Birthday,” was compiled with reference to these street cries, specifically the African American cries which Hill praised so highly; and indeed, that the song’s power is related to the aesthetic and dynamic of the street cry. The presentation will feature performances of the cries and other works, readings, analysis, and will also bring to light the cultural and intellectual ferment in women’s circles in Louisville in the 1890s.

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