Auld Lang Syne: History, nostalgia, and a million midnights

Submitted by Christopher R. Moore on Fri, 12/16/2022 - 11:05

              In just over two weeks, 2023 will inch its way from one side of the globe to the other. Its progress will be visible only by the trail of confetti, discarded bottle corks, and single-use plastic left in its wake. But whatever glass you raise as the new year sweeps over you, one thing will always be the same. Someone will ask you to hold hands across your chest and sing Auld Lang Syne. You might sigh and roll your eyes, but you’ll join in. You’ll sway to the rolling melody and allow the strange lyrics to fall from your lips, and – depending on your ABV levels – you might make a swiftly-forgotten mental note to look up what auld lang syne actually means. It’s always been this way. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the ritual marks not only the new year, but also the rough turning point of the seasons. It is as much a celebration of making it through the worst of another winter as it is a welcome for the new year.


              I love Auld Lang Syne. I truly do. I love it so much I can even find merit in Jools Holland’s Hootenanny version, and it takes a lot for me to forgive the presence of a) bagpipes and b) Jools Holland. I’ve bopped along to punk covers of the song, and foot-tapped when it’s been played by jazz bands. To my mind, no song better captures the melancholy of a New Years’ party that’s raged out of control than Tom Waits’ slurred reworking of Auld Lang Syne, which appears under the name New Year’s Eve on the 2011 album Bad As Me. In Waits’ hands, the song’s signature melody crops up only in the chorus – a kind of half-remembered stand-in for the real thing. The song ends with a moment of pathos of the sort that only Tom Waits can conjure. ‘Calvin’s right,’ he sighs in the final verse, ‘I should go back to driving trucks.’ The old familiar melody then wheezes into life one last time, leaving the fate of the characters – as in so many Tom Waits songs – unresolved.


              But why is this song so enduring? And how did it come to be associated with the start of a new year? It’s generally understood that the lyrics – of which only the first verse and chorus are widely remembered – were written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788, but even this is doubtful. When Burns sent the song to the Scottish Musical Museum, he included a note which read,


              ‘the following song, an 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.’


              It appears that Burns was not the writer of the lyrics, but rather the collector and preserver of them. Even if Burns is being modest here, this still only accounts for the song’s words and not its music. The tune to Auld Lang Syne is adapted from at least three different Scottish folk songs, and the version we associate with New Year’s Eve is by no means the definitive or only one. I find that learning this only makes me love the song more. It is a song that has passed through an uncountable number of hands, each one shaping and reshaping its syllables and cadences. There is no such thing as the original version, and such a thing wouldn’t be worth having even if it did exist. We cannot know the names of everyone who brought Auld Lang Syne into the world, but we pay tribute to them every New Year’s Eve when we sing.


              Whatever the song’s origins, most sources think that Auld Lang Syne was well-established as an end-of-the-night song in Scotland by the late 1700s. This is frustratingly vague, and it does not explain Auld Lang Syne’s enduring connection to New Year’s Eve. There is, after all, a big difference between a song that sends everyone home happy, and a song tied exclusively to one day of the year. How did Auld Lang Syne evolve from Mr. Brightside into Happy Birthday? To answer that, we need to go cross the Atlantic.


              As midnight approached on New Year’s Eve 1929, a young musician named Guy Lombardo led his band in a rendition of their traditional final number. Even at this early stage of their career, they’d played the song so many times that Lombardo affectionately referred to it as their ‘theme tune.’ The location wasn’t ideal – The Roosevelt Grill in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York – but their performance changed the world. It was the climax of the first ever New Year's Eve radio show to be broadcast nationwide. The song – of course – was Auld Lang Syne. Radio was still a fashionable novelty at the time, and the idea of a coast-to-coast broadcast – a party to which everyone was invited – was a captivating one. At a stroke, Lombardo brought Auld Lang Syne out of obscurity, gave it to an audience of millions, and permanently tied it to the end of the old year and the start of the new. America was instantly hooked. Lombardo was the son of working-class Italian immigrants, and was born in Ontario, Canada – an area with a large Scottish immigrant population. It is from here that he picked up Auld Lang Syne and worked it into the repertoire of his band, The Royal Canadians. In a 1965 interview with Time magazine, Lombardo said that ‘it was traditional for bands to end every dance with Auld Lang Syne. When we left Canada, we had no idea we’d ever play it again.’


              Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians would go on to play Auld Lang Syne on the New Year’s Eve broadcast every year for almost five decades. It is no exaggeration to say that Lombardo accidentally invented a tradition now beloved by millions. No recording of the original 1929 broadcast survives, but it’s easy to picture a young Lombardo, many miles from home, conducting the song’s wistful melodies as a tribute to the multicultural immigrant communities that formed him. Lombardo’s version might sound dull and old-fashioned to us, but it is a musical expression of openness and of cosmopolitanism. Indeed, it could not and would not exist without these values. As if this wasn’t enough, Louis Armstrong regularly named Lombardo’s band as among his favourite musical acts. Lombardo himself was – improbably – also a champion speedboat racer. I think the world can be quite marvellous sometimes.


              Since I will always be a literature student at heart, let’s end this with a quick look at the lyrics. What follows is the first – and most well-known – of the verses.


Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And auld lang syne


              The phrase, ‘auld lang syne’ means ‘old long since’ – it’s the equivalent of ‘in the old days,’ or (a phrase much beloved of some of my students) ‘back in the day.’ It has also been used by the writer and translator Matthew Fitt as a rough equivalent to ‘once upon a time.’ Fitt’s translation of Little Red Riding Hood into Scots English begins with the phrase ‘Lang lang ago in the days o lang syne…’ In recasting Auld Lang Syne as The New Year’s Eve Song, Lombardo cemented one of the keenest and – if you like – cruellest situational ironies in music. We don’t just end the night wistfully looking back on old times; thanks to Lombardo, we end the whole year doing so. We begin our new year – our symbolic fresh start – by lamenting days long gone in a tone that falls somewhere between nostalgia and fantasy. We walk backwards into the future. Under this reading, we can interpret the ‘auld acquaintance’ as everyone who has ever had a hand in writing, reworking, or just simply passing this song down the generations. From the nameless old man from whom Burns first scribbled the lyrics, to the anonymous bards whose songs were cribbed and mashed together to form the music, to the Scottish immigrants who took the song to North America, all the way through the years to an Italian-Canadian-American bandleader and speedboat enthusiast.


              One more thing. Let’s be honest with each other – the person you think of when the bells toll for midnight and the TV orchestra wheezes into life is not just an ‘auld acquaintance.’ Perhaps it would be better if they were, and – yes – perhaps they should ‘be forgot and never brought to mind.’ And perhaps in 2023 they will be. But I doubt it. After all, we sing the same song every year. It would be a shame to stop now.

Reflective Writing