"Auld Lang Syne"
And Mr. New Year's Eve
Sometimes a Song just can’t be ignored. And because today is New Year’s Eve, our song this week MUST BE “Old Lang Syne.” Now as everyone knows, the author of this beloved ballad — sung in just about every English-speaking land and in many other countries around the world at the stroke of midnight of the turning year — was the Scots bard, himself, Robbie Burns. Well, yea and nay on that. In the late 1780’s, Burns was working on a set of songs sent to him for commentary by an editor named George Thomson, who was compiling a volume to be called, Select Collection of Ancient Scottish Airs. In returning the songs with his requested commentary upon them, Robbie ventured to recommend the inclusion of “just one more,” which he claimed was an ancient ballad which had never appeared in print and which he had transcribed while listening to an old man sing it. And here is the ballad he sent:
Auld Lang Syne Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And days o' lang syne! For auld lang syne, my Dear, For auld lang syne, We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne. We twa hae run about the braes, And pu't the gowans fine; But we've wander'd mony a weary foot, Sin auld lang syne. We twa hae paidlet i' the burn, Frae mornin' sun till dine: But seas between us braid hae roar'd, Sin auld lang syne. And there's a hand, my trusty feire, And gie's a hand o' thine; And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught, For auld lang syne. And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp, And surely I'll be mine; And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
So, what’s wrong wi’ all that, ye say? Well, a couple o’ things. First, the literary ploy of pretending to have “found” a (usually humorous) work you are publishing goes back at least as far as Cervantes, who claimed to have discovered “Don Quixote” tucked away in book stall, whence he rescued it from oblivion. And it may well be that Robbie Burns wanted his own “ancient” ballad to make it to that forthcoming collection of “ancient Scottish airs” and was playing a little jest on his editor and readers. That he wrote the version of the ballad he sent to George Thomson himself is nearly certain; that he merely transcribed it, not so likely. But that the ballad at least in a very similar form predated Burns’s birth in 1759 is documented fact: the song appears in a 1711 collection by James Watson, Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems. The original ballad appears to have been written as a lover’s lament, and can be found in a 1660 “commonplace book” kept by James Crichton, 2nd Viscount of Frendraught, whose hand-written version goes like this:
Old Long Syne Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon; The flames of Love extinguished, and fully past and gone: Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold, that loving Breast of thine; That thou canst never once reflect On old long syne. On old long syne my Jo, On old long syne, That thou canst never once reflect, On old long syne. But since that nothing can prevail and all hopes are in vain; From these rejected Eyes of mine, still showers of Tears Shall rain: Though thou wast Rebel to the King and beat with Wind therein, Assure thy self of welcome Love, for Old long syne. For Old long syne my Jo, for Old long syne, Assure thy self of welcome Love, for Old long syne.
George Thomson did publish “Auld Lang Syne” in that Collection of Ancient Scottish Airs, in 1797, just after the death of the Bard, and he duly attributed the song to a transcription that Burns made from an old man’s singing of it. And it was Thomson who set the song to the tune of a Scottish folk dance tune, which was indeed “an ancient air.” And Robbie Burns had contributed no fewer than 100 original songs to that Thomson’s first edition. But in the the second edition the work, some 20 years after the Bard’s death, Thomson edited his original note on “Auld Lang Syne” to the effect that while Robbie could have merely transcribed the ballad as he had claimed, it was more probable that he had been playing a little joke on everyone with his tale about hearing it from the old man. And that explanation has to make us love Robbie Burns all the more, for the sake of “Auld Lang Syne,” a song which has meant so much to so many for over two centuries.
The history of “Auld Land Syne” is worthy of a book, to be sure. And I haven’t even touched upon the tune we sing it to, or to how Burns’ original came to be transcribed into contemporary English. For now, let me close with a version of the song that most folks are most familiar with, performed by Mr. New Year’s Eve himself, Guy Lombardo, and His Royal Canadians, who first brought this song to a wide American audience in a live radio broadcast from New York City on New Year’s Eve in 1929 and who continued doing New Year’s shows for American and Canadian audiences, on radio and later on television, for the next 48 years.
Tony and I can’t think of any better way to wish you a happy new year than to give you this video of Mr. Lombardo and his orchestra from New Year’s Eve, 1957. Many blessings to you all in 2023!
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Thanks Debbie. Robbie Burns is a historic icon here in Nova Scotia. On January 25 he is celebrated with kilts and haggis suppers. The explanation of "Auld Lang Syne" added much to the lore about him. It is a keepsake!
Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians is forever etched in those wonderful memories of New Year's Eve. Years of watching the ball drop , listening to his orchestra , and banging pots and pans at midnight were truly childhood delights.