"Ald Lang Syne" in New Year's and Other Popular Tradition
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"Ald Lang Syne" in New Year's and Other Popular Tradition

Originally a poem written by Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, in 1788, "Auld Lang Syne" was set to the tune of a traditional folk song--perhaps by Burns himself. Well known and phenomenally popular throughout the English-speaking world today, it is traditionally sung or played at the stroke of midnight to mark the end of the old year and start of the "New."

Originally a poem written by Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, in 1788, "Auld Lang Syne" was set to the tune of a traditional folk song--perhaps by Burns himself.  Well known and phenomenally popular throughout the English-speaking world today, it is traditionally sung or played at the stroke of midnight to mark the end of the old year and start of the "New."  In recent years, it is also been chosen for funerals, graduations, and other “farewell” occasions.

Translated into English as "old long since,” or more idiomatically, "long long ago,” the phrase "Auld Lang Syne" can also be found in similarly-themed poems written by Robert Ayton (1570–1638), Allan Ramsay (1686–1757), and James Watson (1711), as well as older folk songs predating that of Burns’.

Burns had apparently sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with the note, “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,“ but as scholars point out, some of the lyric were obviously taken from traditional verse rather than composed by the poet himself.  Considerably similar to the James Watson ballad, "Old Long Syne" printed in 1711, it was most likely the source of Burns' work.  And while there is some doubt as to whether the melody used today is the same one Burns originally intended, it is the version most widely accepted in Scotland and throughout the world.

Once popularized, singing the song on Hogmanay (the Scots word for the last day of the year and a celebration typically lasting through the night until New Year's Day) or New Year's Eve, quickly became a Scots custom that spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots (as well as English, Welsh, and the Irish) emigrated to other parts of the world--including the US--they took the song and associated customs with them.

In 1855, a different set of lyric was written to the “Auld Lang Syne” melody by Albert Laighton and titled, "Song of the Old Folks," which was included in the songbook, Father Kemp's Old Folks Concert Tunes published in Boston, Massachusetts in 1860.  Songwriter George M. Cohan used the first line of the "Auld Lang Syne" melody in the second to last line of the chorus of the song “You're a Grand Old Flag” written in 1906 for his stage musical, George Washington, Jr.--an obviously intended homage.  Additionally, John Philip Sousa used the melody in the “Trio” section of his 1924 march, "Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company."

Canadian band leader Guy Lombardo is often credited with popularizing the song at New Year’s celebrations across America (the song long considered his trademark), through his annual broadcasts on radio and television beginning in 1929 and ending in 1971 when the legendary Dick Clark began his New Year’s “Rockin’” Eve broadcasts from Times Square.  In addition to his live broadcasts, Lombardo recorded the song in 1939 and 1947. However, English composer William Shield seems to briefly reference "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of the overture to his opera Rosina, which may be its first recorded use.

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Over its more than 200 years of popular use, a number of traditions have grown in the UK and America including the common practice of everyone joining hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor. Then at the beginning of the last verse, everyone crosses their arms across their chest so that their right hand reaches out to the neighbor on their left, and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle while still holding hands. When the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined. The Scottish version of this custom was demonstrated by the Queen Elizabeth II at the Millennium Dome celebrations at the 2000 celebration. (The English press berated her for not "properly" crossing her arms, unaware that she was correctly following the Scottish tradition.)

In America, perhaps the most common tradition is for everyone to couple-up just before the stroke of midnight and then kiss as “Auld Lang Syne” is being played.

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As might be expected, this highly sentimental iconic song that begins by posing the rhetorical question, “Should auld [old] acquaintance be forgot?” has been used in countless films including: The Gold Rush (1925), The Black Watch (1929), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), I Take This Woman (1940), Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Steel Helmet (1951), Operation Petticoat (1959), The Apartment (1960), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Out of Africa (1985), The Last Emperor (1987), Ghostbusters II (1989), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Forrest Gump (1994), Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003), Sex and the City (2008), The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and most recently, New Years Eve (2011)--to list just a few.

And although played by many famous singers and musicians through years, one of the most memorable is Jimi Hendrix’s version which can be heard on the 1999 Live at Fillmore East recording of a December 31, 1969, concert.

“Auld Lang Syne”

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne.

We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint stowp!

And surely I'll be mine!

And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes, and pou'd the gowan fine;

But we've wander'd mony a weary fitt, sin' auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn, frae morning sun till dine.

But seas between us braid hae roar'd, sin' auld lang syne.

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!

And gie's a hand o' thine!

And we'll tak a right gude-willie-waught, for auld lang syne.

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/auld_lang_syne/

http://www.scotland.org/features/item/the-history-and-words-of-auld-lang-syne/

Images via Wikipedia.org unless otherwise credited.

Thumb: http://www.mama-knows.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/auld-lang-syne-lyrics.jpg

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Comments (8)

Very interesting information...I liked it

Great presentation, you have me singing this song, off key, while I sit here drinking my first cup of coffee...voted

Well, Francina, there can be no greater endorsement than that! Thanks!

Thanks so much, Abdel-moniem. I hope you were entertained as well!

it's nice learning more about the story of this popular song..happy new year

Glad I could fill in some of the historical blanks, Nobert. Happy New Year to you and yours!

Cliff Richard used this music for his Christmas hit when he put the words of the Lord's Prayer to it, but most people were scandalised by a misuse of both the song and prayer.

Yes, I can understand why that would incense people.

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