As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, one song will usher in 2012 in time zones around the world: Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne.” Even in Burns’s native Scotland, many people don’t understand all the words, but that’s done nothing to diminish the song’s appeal.
Although it’s most often associated with the new year, “Auld Lang Syne” is a global anthem of remembrance and fraternity: Type the title into YouTube, and more than 32,000 versions come up, sung by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Alvin and the Chipmunks to toddlers and their grannies. The song is sung throughout the English-speaking world and has been translated into more than 40 languages.
“It has traveled and embedded itself in cultures across the globe,” said Burns biographer Robert Crawford. “It’s a malleable song — it’s quite unspecific about the nature of friendship — so it lends itself to many different occasions.”
Its title translates as “old long since” — “for old time’s sake.” On that point, there is consensus. But more than two centuries after Burns’s death, opinion is divided on the source of the song and how much credit he actually deserves. The poet — author of works such as “Tam o’ Shanter” and “To a Mouse” — denied that “Auld Lang Syne” was his. Rather, he said, “I took it down from an old man.”
Burns, Scotland’s “Ploughman Poet,” was deeply connected with rural life. He traveled throughout the country collecting traditional songs for posterity. He also enjoyed remaking the songs — or “mending” them, as he called it. “Burns denied he wrote it because he didn’t,” said Murray Pittock, a literary historian. “He edited it, though how much we don’t know.”
Most experts think that “Auld Lang Syne” was created by Burns in 1788 using elements from a variety of source materials. These could date as far back as the 16th century and include works by the Scots poets Allan Ramsay, Robert Ayton and James Watson.
“It’s impossible to say how many texts and tunes ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is derived from,” Pittock said.
“Burns wasn’t the sole author,” Crawford said. “He was a co-author.”
Describing the effect “Auld Lang Syne” had on him, Burns wrote in a letter to his friend Frances Dunlop in 1788 that it “thrilled thro’ my soul.” The letter is on display as part of an exhibit at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum that attempts to untangle the complex history of the song. The show features rare printed editions, a manuscript of the song in the poet’s own hand and Burns’s letters from the Morgan’s collection.
“The genius of Burns was that he recognized the power of this old song, and he revitalized it and preserved its essential Scottishness while capturing universal sentiments,” said Christine Nelson, who curated the exhibit. “He had a genius for touching every note of human emotion.”
Like its lyrics, the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” has a convoluted history. The version commonly sung today is not the tune Burns originally set it to, but the suggestion of his publisher, George Thomson. Gerard Carruthers, co-director of the Center for Robert Burns Studies in Glasgow, says Burns would have approved of this mix-and-match approach. “Burns was not a purist,” he said.
Although the poet was a proud man of the people, his popularity in North America owes a lot to New York’s most privileged citizens, according to Carruthers, who is researching the connection for a book.
“Burns became very popular and very collectible in New York high society in the 1880s through to the time of the Great Depression,” he said. “You had these dances and people gathering in Times Square to welcome in the New Year that were attended by people like William Randolph Hearst and Henry Ford. They were the people collecting Burns’s manuscripts because they realized what a good investment they were. The American industrialists were into Burns because they saw him as a self-made man.”
Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo also played an important role in popularizing “Auld Lang Syne” in North America. He adopted the song in 1929 for use in his annual New Year’s Eve broadcasts on radio and television.
“Some people recoil at the mention of it, but it’s a fact that the song needed the new media of radio and television to become the huge hit it is,” Carruthers said.
The full story of the most-performed song in the world after “Happy Birthday” may never be known, but one thing is certain: If Burns were alive, the profits from “Auld Lang Syne” would have made him a billionaire many times over.
Prentice is a freelance writer.
Let’s be honest, most of us don’t actually know the words to Auld Lang Syne. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from drunkenly slurring along to the instantly-recognizable tune at our annual New Year's Eve parties.
It’s a song that elicits feelings of goodwill towards man, a song that moves YouTube commenters to say stuff like this:
While Auld Lang Syne is an integral part of the New Year’s Eve ritual, most of us probably still have a few questions about the song. Namely:
What are the lyrics?
Where did this song come from?
And why the heck do we spend the first few minutes of each year singing it?
The song — the title of which translates roughly to "times gone by" — has five verses, but if you know the first, you'll already be miles ahead of the other drunkards this year:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
TL;DR, here's what the song has to say:
[M]ost New Year’s Eve revellers just mumble or hum along. But they get the gist of the main question of the song: Should old friends be forgotten? And the answer, of course, is no, the past must be remembered.
[The New Yorker]
It was a Scottish folk song, adapted by Robert Burns:
It was Robert Burns (1759–1796), the great eighteenth-century Scottish poet, who transformed the old song (and many other Scottish standards) for publication... When Burns turned his attention to "Auld Lang Syne," he claimed merely to have transcribed the words from "an old man's singing." But from the time his version of the song was first printed (in 1796, just after his death), it has been understood that Burns lent more than a trace of his distinctive artistry to the now-famous verses.
[The Morgan Library & Museum]
Though the version we sing is different than Burns':
[T]he Auld Lang Syne tune which is sung from Times Square to Tokyo, and has conquered the world, is not the one Robert Burns put the original words to. The older tune though is still sung by traditional singers. It has a more douce, gentle, nostalgic feel to it than the popular tune a mood evoked by the subtle use of the traditional air sung by Mairi Campbell in the first Sex and the City movie.
The tune has long been an international favorite:
The international popularity and special significance of Auld Lang Syne was poignantly illustrated during the Christmas Truce at the start of World War 1. For a brief moment the guns fell silent and troops from both sides left the trenches to swap souvenirs and sing songs. According to a letter from Sir Edward Hulse, of the Scots Guards, the British and German soldiers joined together to sing Good King Wenceslas, The Tommies Song and finally Auld Lang Syne.
Although the New Year's Eve thing is mainly a US phenomenon:
In sentimental American movies, Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne is sung by crowds at the big New Year finale. In Bangkok and Beijing it is so ubiquitous as a song of togetherness and sad farewells, they presume it must be an old Thai or Chinese folk song; while in France it is the song which eases the pain of parting with the hope that we will all see each other again.
The tune was used by the Maldives and Korea for their national anthems, while Japanese department stores play it as a polite reminder for customers to leave at closing time.
The New Year's Eve Phenomenon
Why did we start singing it? Blame this Guy:
It was in 1929 that Guy Lombardo and his band took the stage at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on New Year’s Eve. Their performance that night was being broadcast on the radio, before midnight Eastern-time on CBS, then after on NBC radio. At midnight, as a transition between the broadcasts, the song they chose to play was an old Scottish folk song Lombardo had first heard from Scottish immigrants in Ontario. The song was Auld Lang Syne.
[Today I Found Out]
So why do we keep singing it? Hollywood:
A lot of things were popular in the 1940s that have long since been erased from the cultural lexicon. So why did Auld Lang Syne stick around? At least in part, we can point the finger at a usual suspect: Hollywood.
Tinseltown loves the song. Heck, there's a whole supercut devoted to the song appearing in movies during New Year's Eve scenes:
Dan Fallon is Head of Editorial at Digg.