New year marked with ‘auld’ song almost no one understands

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(KWTX) The familiar New Year’s tune Auld Lang Syne is seemingly familiar to just about everyone in Central Texas, across English-speaking countries and in many other parts of the world, too, but music historians call it “the song that nobody knows.”

George Bailey's friends sing "Auld Lang Syne" as the guardian angel, Clarence, gets his wings at the conclusion of the Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life," and the song is a New Year's Eve staple here and around the world. (File)

The words were written—or borrowed--by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788 and later were set to a traditional Scottish folk song entitled “Roud.”

Orchestra leader Guy Lombardo rediscovered the traditional tune in 1927 and made it a New Year’s Eve staple.

“I’ve been reciting Burns poems and singing songs all my life,” said Dr. Ann McGlashon, associate professor of German at Baylor and a Burns scholar.

McGlashon was born in Falkirk, then a village near Dublin, and grew up in a place where Burns is celebrated routinely, most especially on his birthday in the end of January during a festival called the Burns End of January Celebration.

The song grew in use at the new year because the very meaning of the term translates to “old long since” or “long, long ago,” even “for old times’ sake,” author Susan Rennie, ED, wrote in the “Lang Sein, a Dictionary of the Scots Language.”

“It is well known in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world, the traditional use being to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve,” and “By extension, it is also sung at funerals, graduations, and as a farewell or ending to other occasions,” Rennie wrote.

Friends divided by an ocean

“It’s unclear whether the friendship the song relates to was real or imagined, but it reads like a conversation between two men who had been friends, but because of some event they now are divided by an ocean,” McGlashon said.

Many Scottish families were torn apart and the British Crown went so far as to ban the Scottish language after the Revolution of 1745, so for many years thereafter it was illegal to speak it.

In the aftermath tens of thousands of Scots left for brighter shores in America and that exodus could have been the spark that led Burns to revive the old song as somewhat of an anthem.

When Burns sent the song to the Scots Musical Museum after he penned it, he also sent along the remark: "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," historian Maurice Lindsay wrote in “Auld Lang Syne, The Burns Encyclopedia,” in 1959.

Lindsay wrote: “Some of the lyrics were indeed ‘collected’ rather than composed by the poet; the ballad ‘Old Long Syne’, printed in 1711 by James Watson, shows considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns' later poem, and is almost certainly derived from the same ‘old song’”.

“He was well known for borrowing lyrics written much earlier and sometimes adding to them before he published a version,” McGlashon said.

The evolution of the song

The original words written in 1711 differ a bit from what Burns wrote and what revelers sing today:

First verse:
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.

Chorus:
On old long syne my Jo,
On old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
On old long syne.

In 1788 Burns wrote:

First verse:
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 Jo,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Then sometime later his lyric was translated into the common English version:

First verse:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

Chorus:

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

The lines of both chorus and verse are often sung with the extra words "For the sake of" or "And days of", rather than Burns' simpler lines.

This allows one note for each word, rather than the slight melisma required to fit Burns' original words to the melody

There also is some doubt as to whether the melody used today is the same one Burns originally intended, but it is widely used in Scotland and in the rest of the world as we know it.

“The words may have been sung to several different old Scot songs and there are several that would work with the meter,” McGlashon said.

The tune to which "Auld Lang Syne" is commonly sung is a pentatonic Scottish folk melody, probably originally a sprightly dance in a much quicker tempo.

Remembering the old as we greet the new

Whether those so-called original or the lyrics known today, the song begins with a rhetorical question: Is it right that old times be forgotten, should we not remember the old times?

The answer is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships, to remember deeds done, both for you and by you, and save those memories for the future.

“I believe it was about two men remembering their long friendship even though they now live far apart,” McGlashon said.

“The line ‘For auld lang syne, my Jo,’ doesn’t refer to a woman but that word, Jo, was Scot slang for buddy.”

"Auld Lang Syne" is traditionally sung at the conclusion of New Year gatherings in Scotland and around the world, especially in English-speaking countries,” Lindsay wrote.

In Scotland it is common practice at New Year’s celebrations that everyone joins hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor.

When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, while still holding hands and when the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined.

”It’s great fun!”

“It’s wonderful,” McGlashon said, as she remembered participating in the Hogmanay every year on Scotland.

“Of course, there’s drinking and dancing and lots of folks end up either falling down or getting bumped into and knocked over. It’s great fun!”

Hogmanay is what Scots call the last day of the year and the celebration of the New Year on the Gregorian calendar, done in a very unique and Scottish manner.

“The origins of Hogmanay are unclear, but it may be derived from Norse and Gaelic observances,” the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia says.

“Customs vary throughout Scotland, and usually include gift-giving and visiting the homes of friends and neighbors, with special attention given to the first-foot, the first guest of the new year.”

The Auld Lang Syne tune today also is widely used with other lyrics, especially Christian hymns, songs of sporting and other clubs, even as national anthems, Wikipedia says.