MESSAGE BEHIND THE MELODY: Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" song

A Lot of Folks Don't Know It's a Political Song

It was forty years ago this week that Stevie Wonder, along with a group of musicians and politicians, stood on the same area of the Capitol building that was recently overrun by Trump supporters, to argue for Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday to be declared a national holiday. In 1981 the multi-talented singer-songwriter-musician-producer was coming off one of the greatest runs of creative and commercial success in history. Albums like ‘Talking Book,’ ‘Innervisions,’ ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ and ‘Hotter Than July’ had made Wonder pop musics leading figure. Moreover as a child of the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement, Wonder had always had a political consciousness.

While Detroit Congressman John Conyers had initiated the of marking Dr. King’s January 15th birthday as a national holiday, Wonder had embraced the idea and made the effort an signature part of his legacy. I’d traveled down to D.C. for the day as part of new gig at Record World magazine, a now defunct music trade publication, where I had recently started as a staff reporter covering the black music scene. Admittedly my memories of the day are a bit fuzzy: I remember standing on the Washington Mall; listening to various activist speak; recall the presence of both Gil Scott-Heron (who was a big supporter of the effort) and Gladys Knight; can still feel my feet getting cold in the biting January air; and Wonder giving a rambling speech. Ironically I don’t recall a performance of “Happy Birthday,” the track off 1980’s ‘Hotter Than July’ that celebrated King and argued for the King holiday. But I do know he did perform it. Age and time have weakened my recall on that important detail.

What I’ve found interesting is how many people don’t know that Wonder’s song is about King (and I’m not just talking about people in their 20s.) An informal survey of adults from 40s to 20s found that most of them did not know the song’s inspiration was in political agitation. While Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” is now a staple of celebrations most folks know the infectious hook and, maybe, the first verse. As the cake is brought out at most parties folks clap along as they sing the chorus. But there’s a long middle section of the song that makes Wonder’s bigger goal explicit.

I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition

Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion

And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace, our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King

The beauty of a great song is that, whatever the songwriter’s intent, it has its own life, gaining new meanings and is used in new ways that obscure its origins. In the case of Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” its important, I think at this time, to reclaim it as a political anthem. There was great opposition to the King Holiday movement. Even after Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983 several states refused to acknowledge it (which would inspire Chuck D to write “By the Time I Get To Arizona” for Public Enemy.) Just as Dr. King’s ideas are now regularly taken out of context (often by right wingers) and his more radical ideas ignored, Wonder’s song, while delightful as melody, shouldn’t be heard as just a harmless tune, but a very successful piece of political agitation.