Blogs > Cliopatria > Just how auld is Auld Lang Syne?

Dec 31, 2005 5:43 pm

Just how auld is Auld Lang Syne?

Auld Lang Syne boasts the questionable distinction of being the song that everybody tries to sing, but nobody knows properly. Almost anyone can manage "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never brought to mind?'', but New Year revellers habitually throw in something about "the days of auld lang syne'', which doesn't exist in the "official'' version attributed to Robert Burns.

As for the more arcane passages, such as "We twa hae paidl'd in the burn, / Frae morning sun till dine'' or "we'll tak a right guid-willie waught'', if you were drunk enough to attempt them, you'd be too drunk to remember them.

Nevertheless, Auld Lang Syne has achieved a level of global acceptance that dwarfs Mozart or the Beatles. It follows the National Anthem at the conclusion of the Last Night of the Proms; it used to be the tune for the national anthems of Korea and the Maldives; it's used by Japanese department stores to usher customers out of the building at closing time; and it was played at the funeral of Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Cliff Richard added the melody to the Lord's Prayer to create his 1999 chart-topper, and James Stewart gathered family and friends around him to sing it in the lachrymose closing scene of It's a Wonderful Life.

The earliest glimmerings of what would become the world's favourite soundtrack for splashing about in fountains or passing out in flower beds can be traced back to a cluster of historical sources. An anonymous 15th-century lyric, Auld Kindnes Foryett, was the medieval prototype of subsequent poems on the theme of remembering old acquaintances, and was included in George Bannatyne's 1568 manuscript of Scottish poetry. The 17th-century poems Old Longsyne (attributed to Francis Sempill) and Auld Lang Syne (from Allan Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany of 1724) are demonstrably related to today's surviving variant.

Robert Burns's version first came to light in 1788, when he sent a copy to a friend, Mrs Agnes Dunlop, with an accompanying rave review indicating that he had discovered the piece, rather than composing it himself. "Light lie the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment!'' he gushed. "There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.''

Five years later, Burns sent the piece to George Thomson, who was planning to publish a collection of Scottish songs, with a note claiming that it was "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''. About the same time, Burns gave it to James Johnson for inclusion in his collection of songs, The Scots Musical Museum, but when Johnson published it in December 1796, Burns had been dead for several months.

It was almost certainly Thomson who paired the lyric with the tune that now accompanies it, though folklorists and historians have had their forensic skills stretched by the fact that Burns wrote a song called O Can Ye Labour Lea, Young Man to a melody very similar to the Auld Lang Syne of today. However, when Burns first became aware of the traditional Auld Lang Syne, it was attached to a different, and now forgotten, melody, and there's no record of his own verses being set to the modern tune during his lifetime. It was publication in Thomson's Select Songs of Scotland in 1799 that introduced Auld Lang Syne in the version which would travel round the world....

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More Comments:

otto stupakoff - 4/28/2007

Historias should rather have "their foreskin stretched" for taking no interest beyond Englands Gates and the treasure of the different versions of"Auld Lang Syne"worldwide
and the novel meanings it acquired.
Just a little research and your
gift tous.Please let meknow.

ccw sparks - 9/17/2006

The familiar tune is pentatonic—it can be played entirely on the black keys of the piano.

So is the most familiar tune to "Amazing Grace."