BELFAST, Maine — Ned Lightner usually rises early and starts his day with the BBC World Service radio program, carried on Maine Public Radio stations between 5 and 6 a.m.
Had he been listening on Friday, Dec. 21, Lightner would have heard himself singing his original song, a new birthday ditty, an alternative to the classic “Happy Birthday.” Instead, he found out about his worldwide fame because a BDN editor, also rising early, heard the tune and dispatched a reporter to get the story.
“I do get up really early in the morning to go swimming at the Y,” Lightner said Friday, and on the drive to the facility, listens to MPBN. On another day, earlier this month, the BBC solicited new versions of the birthday song.
“They played a couple songs” to give an idea of what listeners might aspire to, he said.
Using the classic “Happy Birthday” song on TV, in movies and in audio recordings requires the user to pay royalties, Lightner explained, “which can become quite expensive.” Lightner runs Belfast Community Media, which is Belfast’s public access TV channel. He produces video features, news stories and also records and broadcasts local government meetings.
Setting out to write a royalty-free version, Lightner said his criteria were that the song “had to be short, it had to be in a vocal range just about anybody can sing,” it should be positive in spirit and catchy in melody.
Lightner describes himself as “a real beginning ukulele player,” but he has an earlier history as a musician and songwriter.
While at the University of Maine, he had a “progressive jug band,” known as Dr. Bronner’s All-One Band.
The group played all original songs at fraternity parties in the 1970s, he recalled, and got its name from a song Lightner wrote about Dr. Bronner’s soap, a product usually sold in health food stores. The paper wrapper on the bar soap features enough words to fill a newspaper’s front page, espousing Dr. Bronner’s New Age philosophy and maxims.
The wrapper inspired the tongue-in-cheek lyrics to the song, Lightner said, before launching into a version, accompanied by his ukulele.
While in college, he contacted Dr. Bronner about the song, not even sure if Dr. Bronner was a real person. Later, he received a phone call from Dr. Bronner, who in a thick German accent told Lightner he loved the song.
The band and soap maker almost appeared together on the Mike Douglas Show, a daytime TV talk show, he recalled.
No TV appearance, but there was a windfall. Lightner said sometime later a truck pulled up to his house and the driver began unloading pallets of Dr. Bronner’s soap and health food products. The band used to toss the bars into the audience during performances.
Whether Lightner’s royalty-free birthday song will immortalize him — or win him freebies — remains to be seen.