The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Auld Lang Syne

Version 1
Compare: Auld Lang Syne - Version 2

The Popular Rendition
Verses and chorus, traditional, ca. 16th Century

1. Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne ?

Chorus

For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld Lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne !

2. And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang sine. Chorus

Translation

1. Should old acquaintances be forgotten
and never remembered
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
For old long ago

For old long ago, my dear
For old long ago
We will take a cup of kindness yet
For old long ago

2. And there is a hand my trusted friend
And give me a hand of yours
And we will take of a good drink/toast
For old long ago. Chorus

Sheet Music from Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book (London: Reid Bros., Ltd., 1929), p. 15.

Sheet Music from J. P. McCaskey, ed., Franklin Square Song Collection, No. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.

See A Garritan Community Christmas for an MP3:
Auld Lang Syne, Frank Pido

William L. Simon, ed., Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981)

The Scottish "Auld Lang Syne" can be translated as "old long ago"- which is also a lovely way of putting it. For most people, New Year’s Eve just isn't complete without the singing of "Auld Lang Syne. " Thanks to Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, who first played it on their New Year’s Eve radio broadcast in 1929, the song is New Year’s Eve, with the special memories it evokes for each individual. The words were adapted in the late 18th century by Scottish poet Robert Burns from traditional Scottish songs, but the composer of the melody is unknown. For decades, people have agreed that it makes a bonny way to close the "old long ago" of Christmastime and usher in the hopes and resolutions of a brand-new year.

Background of Auld Lang Syne

Even in Scotland, hardly a gathering sings it correctly, without some members of the party introducing the spurious line: 'We'll meet again some ither nicht' for the line which Burns actually wrote: 'And we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet'. To say nothing of adding 'the days of' to the line 'For auld lang syne'!

On 17th December 1788, Burns said in a letter to Mrs Frances Anna Dunlop:

'Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these 'social offsprings of the hear'. Two veterans of the 'men of the world' would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet... Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.'

The song 'on the other sheet' was Burns's first version of 'Auld Lang Syne'.

With slight changes, the poet sent a copy of the song to James Johnson, who delayed publishing it, possibly because the air to which it went had already appeared in the Museum with words by Allan Ramsay, beginning: 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot.' But Johnson changed his mind and put the song into the fifth volume of the Museum, which appeared in 1796, about six months after Burns's death; there is evidence in Burns's letters to suggest he had seen in proof stage. The tune to which it was matched in the Museum first appeared in Playford's Original Scotch Tunes, 1700, though doubtless it was then at least half a century old, for it was the tune to which the antecedents of Burns's poem were written.

The 'exceedingly expressive' germphrase has been taced back to an anonymous ballad in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, 'Auld Kyndnes foryett'. The last of the eight stanzas goes:

"They wald me hals with hude and hatt,
Quhyle I wes rich and had anewch,
About me friends anew I gatt,
Rycht blythlie on me they lewch;
But now they mak it wondir tewch,
And lattis me stand befoir the yett;
Thairfoir this warld is very frewch,
And auld kyndnes is quyt foryett."

From that anonymous old poet's complaint of man's ingratitude, we move on to a slightly later ballad, probably by the courtly poet Sir Robert Ayton (1570-1638) who accompanied James VI and I to England, though sometimes attributed on little evidence to Francis Sempill of Beltrees (d. 1683?). First published in Watson's Choice Collection of Scots Poems, 1711, the anthology upon which the whole of the 18th Century Scots Revival was based, Ayton's poem begins:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never thought upon,
The flames of love extinguished,
And freely past and gone?
Is thy kind heart now grown so cold
In that loving breast of thine,
That thou canst never once reflect
On old-long-syne?

Chronologically, the next reference is a prose one: to a scurrilous work, Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display'd published in London in 1694. The author quotes a sermon: 'Did you ever hear tell of a good God and a cappet [pettish] prophet, Sirs? The good God said, Jonah, now billy Jonah, wilt thou go to Ninevah, for Auld lang syne? [old kindness].'

Henley and Henderson refer to a street song, dating from the end of the 17th Century, which had the refrain:

"On old long syne.
On old long syne, my jo,
On old long syne:
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne."

This, attributed to Francis Sempill, appeared in Watson's Choice Collection, but clearly derives from Ayton.

The song which Allan Ramsay wrote to the tune, printed with his words in the Museum, was published in Ramsay’s Scots Songs, 1720. The first eight lines establish the connexion, and at the same time demonstrate that the poem represents Ramsay at his least inspired:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Tho' they return with scars?
These are the noble hero's lot,
Obtain'd in glorious wars:
Welcome, my Varo, to my breast,
Thy arms about me twine.
And make me once again as blest,
As I was lang syne."

At least two other political ballads of the period exist which exhibit turns of phrase, the echo of which sounds in Burns's version: and in 'The Old Minister's Song', 'Tullochgorum' Skinner came nearer than most:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Or friendship e'er grow cauld?
Should we nae tighter draw the knot
Aye as we're growing auld?
How comes it, then, my worthy friend,
Wha used to be sae kin',
We dinna for ilk ither spier
As we did lang syne?"

Was Burns, in fact, aware of these older poems? Almost certainly he was. As noted above, Burns was acquainted with the works of his Scottish predecessors – Barbour and Blind Harry, Dunbar, Henrysoln and Lyndsay, the Makars of the 14th to the 16th Century, and the principals in the 18th Century Scots Revival, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson.

Robert H. Cromek – who in 1808 published Reliques of Burns, consisting of Original Letters, Poems and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs -- alleged evidence that the two best stanzas were by Burns. William Stenhouse, the editor of an early 19th Century reissue of the Museum, stated that Burns admitted to Johnson that only three stanzas were old, the other two being written by himself. George Thomson was certainly suspicious of the supposed old originals. In September 1793, Burns forwarded Thomson the third known manuscript of the song, with some minor changes, the most important of which is the substitution of 'my dear' for 'my jo' in the chorus. In the accompanying letter Burns remarked: 'One song more, and I have done, 'Auld lang syne'. The air is but mediocre; but the following song - the 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's singing - is enough to recommend any air.'

Some time later, after Thomson had discovered from Stephen Clarke that Johnson had a copy of 'Auld Lang Syne' and had noticed that the air was already in the Museum to Allan Ramsay's words, he must have written to Burns, who replied in November 1794: 'The two songs you saw in Clarke's are neither of them worth your attention. The words of 'Auld lang syne are good, but the music is an old air, the rudiments of the modern tune of that name. The other tune you may hear as a common Scots country dance.'

What was 'the other tune'? Probably the tune which we know today, and to which Thomson published the words in Scottish Airs, 1799, claiming them to be 'From an old MS. In the editor's possession', which was at least slightly more honest.

The first strain of the familiar tune appears in 'The Duke of Buccleugh's Tune', in Appollo's Banquet, 1690, though this may be just another interesting example of melodic coincidence. Its 'common Scots country dance' version appeared first in Bremner's Scots Reels, 1759, under the title 'The Miller's Wedding' and in Cumming's Strathspeys, 1780, as well as in McGlashan's Strathspey Reels, also published in 1780, in which it was called 'The Miller's Daugher'. Its commonness is attested by the fact that it appeared in at least a further five similar publications within the next thirty years; was used twice to different words in the Museum; and was employed in a slightly pruned version in William Shield's ballad-opera Rosina in 1783. It is also closely related to the melodies of 'O Can you labor lea' and 'Coming thro' the rye' which appear to derive basically from the same strathspey as 'Auld Lang Syne'.

Sources:

"The Life of Robert Burns" by Rev. George Gilfillan (1886) [Accessed January 9, 2002]

"The Official Robert Burns Website" for an article on Robert Burns and an article on Auld Lang Syne [Accessed January 9, 2002]

The Douglas Clark Home Page and an article on Auld Lang Syne [Accessed January 9, 2002; unavailable as of December 13, 2003]

Scottish Music Website for articles on Robert Burns and Auld Lang Syne [Accessed January 9, 2002; site closed 8 Januarty 2004]

The contents of this web site appear to be mirrored at The Silicon Glen, Robert Burns and Auld Lang Syne

The World Burns Club and for an article on Robert Burns plus two on Auld Lang Syne: So What's 'Auld Lang Syne' and What About Auld Lang Syne [Accessed January 9, 2002]

The Bard of Scotland [Accessed January 9, 2002]

The Works of Robert Burns [Accessed January 9, 2002]

The Bard: Your Complete Guide [Accessed January 9, 2002]

This auld song's been sung, well, lang syne

Everybody sings it as the old year tums to new -- there's even a polka version,
but few people know more than a handful of words

By STEPHEN LYNCH

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Published in The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon, December 30, 1999

Depending on where you celebrate New Year's Eve, the tumtables will spin Prince's "1990," Barry Manilow's "It's Just Another Nov Year's Eve" or even, heaven forbid, Will Smith's "Will 2K."

But at midnight, in almost every nightclub and home, on every television and radio, the song will be the same: "Auld Lang Syne.'

"It just fits the moment' says Tyrone Traher, who has studied the origins of the song, "It's traditional. Kind of like how 'Amazing Grace' is always played at a funeral."

Except that most people can make it past the first line of "Amazing Grace."

"Yes,' Traher agrees with a chuckle. "No one seems to know all the words."

He pauses for a moment. "Come to think of it, I've honestly never read all the words to the song."

So there you have it: a Gaelic-riddled song with an oldfashioned melody that many Americans sing as "should auld acquaintance be forgot ...' and then trail off into a hum. Our national New Year's anthem. How'd it happen? Glad you asked.

"Auld Lang Syne" means "old long since" and is adapted from a traditional Scottish folk tune. The basic words date to at least 1711, though some scholars say it was menrioned as early as 1677. Scottish poet Robert Bums is credited with first publishing it, in the mid-1790s, and, researchers say, smoothing out some of the verses and changing the melody.

The song recalls the days gone by and says we will always remember them. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot?." it asks. No, the chorus replies: 'For auld lang syne (for times gone by), we'll talc (drink) a cup o' kindness yet ."

As for the other lyrics, Verse 2 refers to friends at separate places (or pubs), drinking to each other. Verses 3 and 4 talk about a long journey to find that friend, running "about the braes" (hillsides), and "pou'd the gowans fine" (pulled the pretty daisies), and getting tired doing so "wand’d mony a weary fit," or "a weary foot," dependlng on the version). It continues with wading streams ("paidI'd in the bum"), from dusk until dinnertime, but even then, broad ("braid") seas roar between them.

But finally, in the last verse, the friemts find each other. And they "talc a right guid-willie waught' ("drink a goodwill drink') for times gone by.

It wasn't Bums, however, who turned this misty-eyed tune into a New Year's tradition. That would be Guy Lombardo, who first heard the song in his youth from Scottish immigrants in his hometown of London, Ontario.

Traher, who organizes the Royal Canadian Big Band Music Festival and tribute to Lombardo every year in London, says the song stuck in the musician's head. When Lombardo formed an orchestra with his brother in 1919, they arranged the piece and made it part of their repertoire.

"It seemed appropriate for New Year's -- a time to look back," Traher says. So when the Lombardo brothers got the chance to headline a New Year's Eve party in New York in 1929, they played "Auld Lang Syne" near midnight, then counteted down.

For nearly 50 years after that, Guy Lombardo and his orchestra played New Year's Eve radio and, later, television spedals from the Waldorf Astoria

"Prior to Dick Clark, there was Guy Lombardo," Traher says, and though Lombardo died in 1977, "Auld Lang Syne" became a staple.

Now there are pop versions of the song, disco remixes, even a controversial British single of the Lord's Prayer sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" topping the charts in the United Kingdom this month. George Reynoso, an independent music retailer in El Paso, Texas, sells a CD through his Web site (www.newyearsevesong.com) that includes country, polka and dance versions of the standard.

"The Lombardo version is sleepy, dreamy; it definitely needed an update," Reynoso says.

He adds that he got the idea from "Corrido de Auld I.ang Syne",. a hard-to-find Mexi.can dance version of the song.

"It's ingrained in the consciousness," Reynoso says of the appeal of"Auld Iang Syne."

And even though people aren't sure what it means, it sounds sad and soothing at once, he says.

"It's a song about loss, but also about love -- a hope that you'll see the same people you love next year."

Really?

"Well, that's the way I think about it," Reynoso says. "But no, I don't know the words."

 

 

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