The Birthday Song


The “Contra Dance Birthday Round”

For many years in Western Massachusetts - in particular in Greenfield and at the now goneby Northfield dances - there has been a contra dance tradition of honoring people’s birthdays by singing them the “contra dance birthday round”. This song and tradition have now spread by word of mouth, far beyond New England but most people do not know the origin of the song.

After several years of sporadic research, here is a consolidated history, based on notes from lydia ievins, David Kaynor and Ralph Sweet:

The lyrics to the Birthday Round were written by Dorothy Dushkin, a composer who founded Kinhaven Music School and summer camp in Weston,VT with her husband David in 1952. The song appeared in the Kinhaven cookbook and was sung at the camp on a regular basis. This is a photo of page 106 in the cookbook with a description of birthdays at Kinhaven and the score for the song. The tune and phrasing differ somewhat from the original tune and from how it is generally sung today, especially the last three notes.

Ralph Sweet gets credit for uncovering the original tune and lyrics, a song called “Whene’er You Make a Promise” that was apparently composed by William Shield in 1828 and was found on page 7 of an old Girl Scout Song Book that Ralph bought at a flea market - “Girl Scout Pocket Songbook”, 1956. I will try to post a scan of the page when I get a chance.

William Shield was also the composer of the tune for “Auld Lang Syne” (to lyrics by Robert Burns). Though written long before the founding of the Girl Scouts/ Girl Guides, it is familiar as a campfire song to many Girl Scouts going back generations. The original words are:

  1. When e're you make a promise, (D, A7, D, repeated on each line)

  2. Consider well its importance
    Engrave it upon your heart.

Dorothy Dushkin composed the new lyrics and according to David Kaynor: “My cousins Chapin, Cammy, and Van Kaynor all went to Kinhaven and learned the round there. I believe Cam used to lead the round at Northfield dances and the old Monday night dances at the Unitarian Meetinghouse in downtown Amherst in the late 1970s. In 1980, I started leading it at Greenfield dances.”

When you sing the song or pass it on, please be sure to credit Dorothy Dushkin and William Shield, as well as the Kaynor family for giving us this lovely round and tradition.

Usage: Though this is probably best sung as a 3 or 4-part round, in practice at contra dances it is generally sung as just two parts. In Western Massachusetts, it’s sung in unison once through and then again in two parts with lots of harmonies on the last note. At Kinhaven, it was apparently sung relatively slowly but at dances it is usually sung up tempo to give it a more celebratory feel and avoid the tendency to slow down after the unison part. Some videos I’ve found of the original lyrics have it being sung quite up tempo as well.

The lyrics have also altered slightly over time to be more inclusive. If just one person is being sung to, their name is usually said after “to our dear....” but when there is more than one, as is often the case at contra dances, “friends” can be substituted for someone’s name. For the ending, “may she/he have a long, long life” has evolved to use “you” or “they” instead of gendered pronouns.

Susan Conger and Jacqui Ann have kindly provided the music in two keys, for download.

                  Birthday_Round_In_D.pdf           Birthday_Round_In_F.pdf    

Below is the tune as it’s generally sung at contra dances and a diverse range of communities today. The song is traveling beyond the North America as well...someone posted recently on Facebook that “I sang it to Italians in Africa a few years ago...”