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‘Auld Lang Syne ~ the song heard ’round the world

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

As one year ends and a new one begins, Auld Lang Syne embodies our memories of loved ones no longer with us and holidays of the past.  I would venture to say that, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, millions of people across the country and around the world join in singing this traditional farewell – or at least the first verse and chorus.

As well as we feel we know it, we’d be hard pressed to recognize any of the original lyrics, as they were written in Scots English in the 1700s.

The famous Scottish poet Robert Burns is correctly associated with Auld Lang Syne, but, although he wrote it down, he didn’t actually write it.

In 1788, Burns had taken on the immense task of preserving old Scottish songs and poems that had been handed down from generation to generation for centuries.

Among the many old songs he collected and transcribed was an ancient version of Auld Lang Syne.

At the time, Burns wrote this about the song:

“The following song, an old song of the olden times, has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

Burns may have been mistaken about the song never having appeared in print before, because the first verse of Auld Lang Syne is very similar to one that was published in an “old ballad” by James Watson in 1711.

Watson was a printer and bookseller who published a compilation of ancient poetry called Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scottish Poems, which included an old song which was probably another version of Auld Lang Syne.

In any event, as he did with many of the old tunes and lyrics he’d collected, Robert Burns altered that first verse a bit and added a few more verses of his own.

And Auld Lang Syne officially took its place in Scottish history.

“Auld lang syne” means “old long since,” or “long, long ago.”

These days, it could most probably be translated to: “for old time’s sake.”

The song became an indispensable part of “Hogmany,” which was what the Scottish New Year celebration was called.

“Auld Lang Syne” is one of the best traveled songs of all time.

From Scotland, it spread throughout Britain and, from there, it circled the globe.

As Scots, Welsh, Irish and English people emigrated to the far-flung parts of the British Empire, they took their beloved song with them.

It’s been translated into dozens of languages all across the world and lent its melody and lyrics to many other songs and many other cultures.

For instance, the University of Virginia’s alma mater song, “The Good Old Song,” is sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

By the 20th century, the song was occasionally being heard across America on New Year’s Eve.

But it took a Canadian to really make “Auld Lang Syne” a permanent American tradition.

Band leader Guy Lombardo was born and raised in London, Ontario, which was a town founded by Scottish immigrants, so “Auld Lang Syne” was probably familiar to him during his youth.

Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians performed it on many of their radio and television programs, but especially on New Year’s Eve, from 1939 until just before Lombardo’s death in 1977.

Lombardo famously told people that as their radio show was sponsored by Robert Burns cigars, and “Auld Lang Syne” was written by Burns, it seemed a natural fit, and that’s how they started using it during so many of their shows.

When they made it to American television and played for a popular New Year’s Eve show every year, “Auld Lang Syne” came with them.

So, by this circuitous route, the ancient ballad made its way from Scotland to the heart of America.

It’s the Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians” version of “Auld Lang Syne” that we hear after the ball drops in Times Square every year.

Whether we know all the words or not, this song carries a message that speaks to our hearts.

“Auld Lang Syne” gets us singing together.

It tells us to toast old friends and loved ones, and memories of the days of long ago, which, I think, is the perfect sentiment for seeing out the old year and welcoming in the new.

And it always brings a tear to my eye.

For those who want to learn the words, here they are in English.

“Auld Lang Syne”

1st Verse:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

2nd Verse:
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


3rd Verse:
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.


4th Verse:
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.


5th Verse:
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.


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