This traditional song has been used for many years to congratulate a person on reaching retirement, a birthday, the birth of a child, or some other significant event or achievement. It is generally sung in a partying, drinking and/or sporting context. The tune originates from the popular French folk song "Marlborough s'en va-t-en guerre" ("Marlborough Has Left for the War"), which was composed the night after the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709. The song was frequently printed in France as "Malbrouk" or "Marlbourouck," or some other variation, after it was popularized by a nurse singing it to one of Marie Antoinette's infants as a lullaby. The first date we have of the melody being associated with the familiar English words was in 1870, in New York, when the tune was known as "We Won't Go Home till Morning." The public domain lyrics are of unknown origin.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records
, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" is the second-most popular song in the English language, following "Happy Birthday
This public domain song is frequently used instead of "Happy Birthday to You" in films and TV to avoid possible copyright issues. Some of the many instances when it has cropped up in movies include The Poseidon Adventure, when it was played by the band on New Year's Eve and in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, where the character Zartan habitually whistles the tune. In The Rescuers, a variation of the song, "For Penny's a Jolly Good Fellow," is sung by the orphan kids at the end of the movie.
The song is often used in sporting occasions by crowds to toast sporting heroes such as the legendary Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman after his famous last Test Match in 1948. Alternatively the tune is frequently borrowed for sports crowd ditties such as the traditional football chant, "We're Gonna Win the League."
The 2010 album track by Welsh rock band The Lostprophets, "For He's a Jolly Good Felon," is a play on words on this song.