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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Betcha Can't Sing "Auld Lang Syne"

It's New Years Eve. As midnight approaches, my thoughts turn to the hope and the promise of a new year, a much better year... the best year ever.  And yet nostalgia and doubt mix with these expectations creating a bitter-sweet concoction of emotions as the clock ticks away the last minutes of the "old" and dutifully signals its completion of a symbolic passage into the"new."

Just as clock strikes twelve, I hear the first few strains of the song "Auld Lang Syne," and I instantly mouth the words: "Should old acquaintance be forgot..." Then, tradition and emotion overwhelm me Still, I cannot tell you why the song affects me so. Without the tune, my New Year would be incomplete, like a Fourth of July without the "Star Spangled Banner" or a Christmas without "Silent Night."

Today, January 2, I am looking for some answers to my love affair with the song. What is so appealing about this traditional tune, and what does it actually mean? As usual, my investigation leads to pleasant discoveries and even more questions for contemplation.

The song, "Auld Lang Syne," is attributed to Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns. In 1788, he set his Scots poem of the same name to the tune of a traditional folk song. The words auld lang syne literally translate to "old long since," and more roughly it means "long, long ago" or "days gone by."

There are some lyrics that appear to have been taken from an earlier poem by James Watson, titled "Old Long Syne." In fact, some historians believe Burns claimed to have written only two stanzas of this song (verses 2 and 3), while the others verses were from Watson's poem and older songs. Notice the similarities to "Auld Lang Syne" in the opening of James Watson's poem:

"Old Long Syne" James Watson (1711)


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,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
in Old long syne.

And some even believe Burns pretended this song to be the work of some heavenly inspired minstrel and went on to state that "it was never in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man's singing." Burns claims no one ever heard of it until he sent it to publisher and music seller James Johnson

Yet, is it credible that such a song of unrivalled merit could have remained unknown to all of Scotland except one old man?" Burns was believed to be prone to indulge in little mystifications regarding his songs.

Despite its strong association with New Year’s Eve, “Auld Lang Syne” was never intended to be a holiday song. Evidently, the song just fit the celebration of a new year and was embraced by the Scottish populace.

At some point in mid-nineteenth century Scotland, it became customary to sing "Auld Lang Syne" on Hogsmanay, the name for the Scots last day of the year. Hogsmanay is a Scottish New Year’s celebration, which has pre-Christian roots as a ceremony to welcome the winter solstice.

Soon after that, the custom spread throughout the British Isles; from there it emigrated with Scots, Brits and the Irish around the world. By the 1890s there are reports of it being sung at New Years Eve parties in Australia, continental Europe, and the United States.

One of the most interesting facts is that the "Auld Lang Syne" tune, which is sung from Times Square to Tokyo, 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 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 History and Words of Auld Lang Syne,", December 2012)

Big band leader Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing the song in America when his band used it as a segue between two radio programs during a live performance at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York in 1929. By coincidence, they played “Auld Lang Syne” just after the clock hit midnight, and a New Year’s tradition was born.

A more modern variation on the tradition is to mumble through the forgotten words. But if you'd like to step back in time and honor a centuries-old song, here are the full lyrics of the "Auld Lang Syne" New Year's Eve song.

"Auld Lang Syne"
(Burns’ original Scots verse)

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 tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d i' 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-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.



Auld lang syne - days gone by
braes - hills
braid - broad
burn - stream

cup o' kindness - a toast (drink)
dine - dinnertime

fiere - friend
fit - foot

frae - from
gie's - give us
gowans - daisies
guid-willie waught - gude-willie is a common Scotch adjective meaning good-will; its opposite, ill-willie, means malicious. Waught is a word in every day use for "hearty drink." The expression then, simply means a hearty drink taken with good-will.

hae - have
jo - sweetheart or darling (variation of joy)
mony - many
morning sun - noon
paidl't - paddled
pint-stowp - pint tankard; stowp is a wooden measure -- a jug or a tankard -- and it would have to be large to hold a Scots pint i.e. 4 Imperial pints.
pu'd - pulled

sin - since
twa - two


In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal’s baffled Harry wonders,
“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?”
“Well, maybe it just means that we should remember
that we forgot them or something,” Sally reasons.
 “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”
 (Christina Ng, "'Auld Lang Syne’: What Does it Mean Again?"
ABC News, December 31 2012)
I believe few realize that the song begins by posing rhetorical questions as to whether it is right that old friends and old times be forgotten.  So, even though the thoughts are rhetorical, the question for those celebrating a new year is this: "Should old acquaintances and old times be forgotten?" The song is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships and memorable times.

Yet, I believe most people believe these lyrical questions are not questions, but pleas to forget friends and times that weren't so kind to them in the past. In other words, many sing the song in the spirit of letting go and putting to rest "water under the bridge."

But, don't we really sing the song to keep some precious old memories alive? Maybe this "remembering/forgetting" dilemma is the cause of my strange emotional reaction to "Auld Lang Syne" at the stroke of midnight on New Years. I cannot forget what I can remember, and New Years gives dynamic birth to both my new and old thoughts.
The fact that different lyrics have replaced the original words and the fact that "Auld Lang Syne" was originally written hundreds of years ago in another language, attribute to the fact that it is probably one of the most misunderstood song lyrics and titles of all time.

Let's face it -- most people don't know any lyrics from the song except the English translation of the line "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?" They hum the melody or make up the rest of the lyrics to suit themselves. And, they do it with great passion, soulful kisses, and significant dance floor gusto considering the happy holiday and the friendly spirits that enliven the occasion.

So, here's to 2013 and many, many more years. Hope, promise, remembrance, melancholy -- so many emotions seem to push their way into our New Years celebrations. So many that perhaps, like confused and excited little beings on a large and uncertain planet, we long for a song that we trust but don't really understand -- simply a unsober hymn to acknowledge our imperfect human existence.

Misheard lyrics (also called mondegreens) occur when people misunderstand the lyrics in a song
"Auld Lang Syne" has been the victim of many mondegreens over the years. Here are a few of my favorites:

Should old Aunt Quaintance be forgot?
Should all acquaintance be for God
Old Langs Sign
Old Hang Sign
Old Hag Sigh
Old Langs High
Old Hangs High
Ol' Hank's High
And make the old man cry
In the land of old man time?

Please listen to the Traditional "Auld Lang Syne" and decide if the post helped you to relate to this New Years song.

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