The Tune that Conquered the World

My wife and I were out for our anniversary date this past week at a very fancy and very quiet restaurant. All of the sudden, the sound system started blaring the local dance floor version of the “Happy Birthday” song. Yes, our local musicians have taken their line-dancing Central Asian techno-folk music and applied it to the traditional Western birthday medley. The result is a surprisingly catchy song that does indeed make you want to link pinkies and bounce your shoulders while wearing a birthday tiara. And if this doesn’t happen, there will at least be dozens of selfies around perfectly arranged birthday decor. Our locals take birthdays very seriously.

We commented that it was nice to have some music, although by now that particular line-dance rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” is getting a little old. I was reminded again of the surprising power of this Western tradition. This little song has truly conquered the world. And while locals in many cultures have made it their own, the basic message, structure, and melody of the original has remained recognizable.

A few years ago I was driving around south Louisville, KY, when I noticed a historical marker. History nerd that I am, I stopped to read it. It said that the wooded hill it was placed next to – Kenwood Hill – was the place where the “Happy Birthday” song was originally written by a pair of songwriter sisters in 1893. This quiet corner of Louisville, Kentucky, unassuming though it is, has musically infiltrated nearly every corner of the globe. Strange and fascinating. Take heart, music and kindergarten teachers everywhere. Mildred and Patty had a far greater influence than they could have ever dreamed.

I have often written about the deep differences in culture and worldview that still persist in spite of the reality of globalization. And yet there are many things that, like the “Happy Birthday” song, have begun in a small corner of one culture and have now become part of global culture. They are present almost everywhere you go. Blue jeans. Coffee of some sort. Smart phones. Wedding dresses. I find it interesting that these things are so globally ubiquitous and yet themselves still not quite unaffected by local cultures. Everything that has gone global has been inescapably localized – even if only in some small way. They are, like Alexander the Great, conquerors who have themselves willingly taken on somewhat the dress and customs of their new subjects.

This dynamic encourages me not to get too bent out shape when cultural applications of Western Christianity get exported overseas. These forms, if they take root in another culture, simply cannot remain completely the same. It’s impossible. The laws of crossing cultures forbid it. They will always be localized in some way. This is simply what humans do. The old missionary hymns sung in English still in Melanesia are in fact sung to a different tempo and pronunciation than they are in the homeland – they have been Melanesianized. In this sense they were not a complete failure of contextualization. Rather, they are an opportunity to observe both the transferability of forms from one culture to another and the resiliance of local culture in the face of foreign forms.

It is impossible to do missionary work in some kind of a cultural vacuum. Global forms have already begun infiltrating every corner of the world and they will continue to do so. The world has always been this way. Statues of Athena influenced the way Buddhist sculptors did their own craft. In this way ancient Greek culture affected the religious imagery of medieval Japan. Globalization is not a new phenomenon. Rather than living in some kind of delusion that we can and should keep out all foreign cultural forms in our missionary work, we would be wiser to recognize which ones are already here to stay – and which ones would be appropriate and strategic for local culture. Yes, while we also encourage the development of as many local forms as possible.

Our local believers love the translated version of the song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” Initially, I lamented this, carrying the cultural baggage that I do with that song from Bible camp altar calls that were dragged out for way too long. But the locals don’t have that baggage. And turns out it’s not even a Western song. It was written by an Indian believer. After that at some point it took over Western Christianity. In that sense, the song is actually indigenous to Asia. But it became so common in the West that someone like me had no idea of its Asian origin until I was enlightened by a colleague that grew up in South Asia. So there is a hefty dose of irony in my original disappointment that this “Western” song is so beloved here.

I am frankly impressed that the “Happy Birthday” tune has taken over the world. Who could have seen that coming? Now, which creations culture go viral will always be impossible to predict. And yet that is an encouragement to be creators of culture ourselves – songwriters, authors, craftsmen, inventors. If we create cultural forms that serve our local context, then that’s a win. But who knows? Like the little song written on Kenwood Hill, our creation just may go farther then we ever could have dreamed.

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