by Kevin Burton
As December fades and January rushes in, one song is ubiquitous.
Every year without fail, time zone by time zone, it’s difficult to avoid
“Auld Lang Syne.” It’s the song of New Year’s Eve, nostalgia and old friends.
“Auld Lang Syne is an international anthem and one of Scotland’s gifts to the world,” writes Steven Brocklehurst on the BBC Scotland News website.
“It is a song of reunion not of parting, as some people think. It recalls happy days gone by, separation and coming back together.”
Respected British writer Robert Burns wrote the lyrics to the song in 1788, “but the tune we know now does not first appear with the song until after his death,” Brocklehurst writes. “Both the words and the tune appear to be based on earlier fragments which Burns ‘restored’ but the power of the two together has become unstoppable.”
There is a family and friendship feeling to the song that everybody seems to immediately understand, according to Burns Scholar Thomas Keith.
“It is something to do with that melody as well as the Burns lyrics, because the lyrics are sometimes known and sometimes not,” Keith said.
So what does Auld Lang Syne mean?
“It would translate into standard English as ‘old long ago’ or more colloquially ‘the good old days,’” Brocklehurst writes. “In the modern idiom some might say ‘back in the day.’ It is a tale which looks back at old times with a friend from childhood and seeks to rekindle the past by a handshake and a goodwill drink.”
Auld Lang Syne is one of those rare songs you know by its first few notes. Its feeling grabs you immediately. The lyrics have a meaning but by now that is way beyond the point.
The 1989 comedy When Harry Met Sally has this exchange at a New Year’s party when Billy Crystal’s Harry gets distracted immediately after declaring his love for Meg Ryan’s Sally.
Harry: “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 if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?”
Sally: “Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.”
In India and Bangladesh, the melody was the direct inspiration for the popular Bengali song “Purano shei diner kotha” (Memories of the Good Old Days) and in Korea, from 1919 to 1948, the lyrics of the national anthem were to the tune, which was introduced to the country by Western missionaries,” Brocklehurst writes.
“Its popularity in Russia stems from an admiration of Burns, and in China Auld Lang Syne is so established that many assume it is a native song,” Brocklehurst wrote. It’s one of the most popular ring tones in China at all times of the year, according to the website of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland.
“It is popular in farewell parties in Mexico and many European scouting gatherings. The Danes have it as a folk song and the Dutch use it as a tune for their football song “We love Orange,” Brocklehurst writes.
“The Japanese got their hands on Auld Lang Syne in the 1890s when it was introduced into the school curriculum by an American teacher – Luther Whiting Mason – in a wave of Westernization. The words were changed but the essence of the song remains. The song they call Hotaru no hikari speaks of remembrance, nostalgia and friendship.” Brocklehurst wrote. “It has become something of a Japanese school anthem and is commonly heard in graduation ceremonies and at the end of the school day. It is also used in stores and restaurants to mark closing time.”
“Auld Lang Syne, with its themes of friendship, melancholy and reconciliation, is the perfect New Year song. But its place as a New Year’s anthem owes much to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadian Big Band,” Brocklehurst wrote.
“Lombardo, who recalled hearing the song being played by Scottish immigrants in Canada, was instrumental in fixing it in the consciousness of Americans by playing it on his radio and TV shows which reached millions every New Year from 1929 to his death in 1977.”
Lombardo’s 1947 Decca Records version is played in Times Square every New Year’s immediately following the dropping of the ball, according to Wikipedia.
In Brazil, Portugal, France, Spain, Greece, Poland and Germany the song is used to mark a farewell, the Edinburgh website says. In the Philippines it is well known and sung at graduations and on New Year and Christmas.
In Latin America, a salsa version of Auld Lang Syne recorded by Salsa Celtica is a regular fixture in salsa clubs, according to the Edinburgh website.
“US military historian Robbie Wintemute says that during the American Civil War the Union tried to restrain singing of Auld Lang Syne because of the sentiments of returning home and reconciliation,” Brocklehurst wrote. “However, after the signing of the surrender terms, General Grant ordered the band to play it, recognizing that the country and the soldiers had been through a tremendous upheaval and that now was a time for healing.”