“Auld Lang Syne” is perhaps the most misunderstood song in the world. Billy Crystal’s character, in the classic film “When Harry Met Sally” speaks on behalf of the everyman: “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot?’ Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances. Or does it mean that if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?” It doesn’t help that the lyrics are in Scottish dialect, that most people don’t know the lyrics past the first verse, and that the singers are pretty well sloshed and slurring the few lyrics they do know. It’s a real musical conundrum — best not considered with a pounding hangover.
To understand the true meaning of the modern version of Auld Lang Syne, we need to go back in time to the 16th century. The seeds for Auld Lang Syne were several poems published in compilations of Scottish poetry by George Bannatyne (1565), James Watson (1711) and Allan Ramsay (1724). Later in 1787 Ramsay published his earlier poem “Old Longsyne” together with the music of an old familiar Scottish tune (slightly different from the melody of the modern version). It was this version that was familiar to poet Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) when he was collecting and adapting Scottish folk songs for a forthcoming anthology (The Scots Musical Museum, 1766). In the modern sense, Burns was tweeting a song he heard from a balladeer from Ayshire who was singing an early version of the song; Burns credits his muse: “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” Of couse, Burns did not transcribe the song word for word; he used poetic license to modify it, and thus created a new and unique version titled “Auld Lange Syne” in 1788. The traditional version of Auld Lang Syne, as we know it, was actually born almost a decade later in 1799, when editor George Thomson printed Burn’s poem along with the music of an old Scottish dance (similar to the modern tune).
Auld Lang Syne was sung not only during the Scottish New Year’s celebration (known as Hogmanay) but more significantly on any farewell occasion, when friends were about to be separated from one another (e.g., emigration to America). The song became very popular in America during the Civil War — Union soldiers often sang “Home Sweet Home” and “Auld Lang Syne” to remember the places and people that they had to leave.
“Auld Lang Syne” translated literally means “old long since” and translated figuratively means “the good old days” or “for old time’s sakes.” In essence, the song is a sincere expression of nostalgia for friendship and memories from the good old days. It is written in the form a conversation between the singer and a trusted friend (“my dear” and “trusty friend”). The first verse poses the critical question that can be rephrased as “Should we forget old friends and memories of the past?” Although not explicitly stated, the answer is a resounding “No!” The second verse expresses the promise to remember the people from the past with great kindness (“a cup o’ kindness”). In the third and fourth verses, the singer remembers the people of the past who ran around the hills, pulling up daisies, and who paddled in the stream from dawn to dusk. Each of the verses ends with the lament of how they have been separated (wandered away; divided by broad, roaring seas). In the fifth verse, the singer honors the memory of his friends by offering his companion a handshake and a drink/toast. The sixth and seventh verses repeat the first and second verses, respectively.
The story of “Auld Lang Syne” now jumps forward 130 years. The modern American tradition of “Auld Lang Syne” was created when band leader Guy Lombardo (ironically, a Canadian) and his orchestra, The Royal Canadians, performed the song at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on January 1, 1929 amid happy and toasted (pun intended) revelers. Lombardo continued to perform the song live from New York until 1976. The song, of course, is now a cherished American tradition. Each New Year’s Eve millions of people gather together, overcome by nostalgia — and in various stages of inebriation — to sing a song they don’t quite understand to say goodbye to the past year and welcome a new, unknown year.
For further reading: “Auld Land Syne: The Song That Nobody Knows” by Bill Vossler, Elks Magazine (December 2012)