Ever wondered why Auld Lang Syne, an eighteenth century Scottish folk song, is the go-to default song for the ringing of the midnight bells? Across the southern and the northern hemispheres, as the international date line slowly but surely traverses the globe pulling 2014 behind it, English-speaking Peoples will be joining hands and bawling out this archaic ballad.
Unlike Christmas, which has hundreds and hundreds of songs, New Year has just this one, and it has stuck around for the longest time. It is hard to imagine a New Year’s Eve without the traditional chorus, even though almost nobody knows what it really means. True enough, celebrants are often so inebriated by this point in the partying that they don’t really care what it means. Most know a bit of the first verse and the refrain, but as for the ensuing verses? It often end up with just the chorus repeated over and over, until the rousing rendition fizzles out, and folk turn to hug and kiss instead. Everyone remembers how to do that.
This is such an odd situation, how did it come about? This was a question brought to philosophical focus in the hit movie When Harry Met Sally.
Harry says to Sally, “My whole life, I don’t know what this song means.” That probably puts his character right up there with just about everybody else who does not happen to have a Scots dialect speaking grandparent on the family tree. He goes on, “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, but that’s not possible because we already forgot them?”
Sally, sensibly, replies, “Well maybe it just means that we should remember them if we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.”
They’re both sort of right and sort of wrong. The question posed is rhetorical, and no, we shouldn’t forget old friends, especially ones we have “paid’d in the burn” with, or “roan about the braes.” In other words, spent happy times with. Especially if now, “seas between us braid hae roar’d” that is to say, we are now separated by distance, but not affection.
These are the ones we would dearly love to be linking arms with and sharing a “right guid willie waught” – a lovely alcoholic beverage – as the old year departs, and the new one, full of promise, begins.
All too often, it is the annoying neighbors, the colleagues from work you secretly can’t stand, or the partner you just had a big fight with as you were getting ready who join you under the streamers at midnight. If this happens, be sure to bring old acquaintances to mind. Time is fleeting, never more so than at this auspicious moment when the hands turn that crucial minute, and old friends are precious.
“We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet” is the last line that is vaguely recollected by most carousers. Although there is no official confirmation of this, most often assumed to be (yet another) reference to a stiff drink, there is a possibility that “kindness” here is meant in the Shakespearean sense of the word.
“The milk of human kindness” the line from the Scottish play, Macbeth, refers not to sweet temperament, but to his sense of “kin” another word for clan or family. It is nearly always incorrectly ascribed to his gentle nature, or that Lady Macbeth found her husband a bit of a softie, but “kin” or “kind” meant something quite different centuries ago. It would be in keeping with the notions inherent in Auld Lang Syne if it had that archaic meaning in the song.
None of this yet explains how the song is sung so enthusiastically in so many locations. Rabbie Burns, who did not claim to write it, but reportedly “took it down from an old man” in 1788, must turn annually in his grave when he hears the distant thrummings from all around the planet. Perhaps not, though; it would be pleasing to imagine it still has the effect it first had upon him when he reported it as an “old song and tune which has often thrilled thro’ my soul.”
He was so popular in his lifetime that the song was taken up by the Scottish Peoples, and as they scattered and emigrated around themselves, notably to America, Canada and Australasia, they took it with them. Hogmanay, or New Year, for Scots is still much more important than Christmas. Christmas wasn’t even a holiday there until 1955.
There are records of it being sung at New Year in the 1800s. We then have to cut forward quite radically to 1929, when a band leader, Guy Lombardo, sang it every new year; first on radio, and then on TV, right up until 1976 with his band, the Royal Canadians, which was composed of his three brothers. The young Guy Lombardo had heard the song growing up in London, Ontario, where it was performed by the Scottish immigrant community.
Guy Lombardo’s annual event was the predecessor to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve; much like Clark’s special, Lombardo’s event became interwoven into the culture. He sang Auld Lang Syne for the last time at the Waldorf Astoria in 1976, and he died the following year.
Somehow or another, Auld Lang Syne just has enormous staying power, and its theme of love and loss combines regret for the year that has gone, with the promise that we may meet those who are especially important to us again. It has become an international anthem of nostalgia, and the promise of reunion. It serves both as a farewell and as an acceptance of the inevitability of change. It has sorrow in it, but also hope.
If you want to impress your friends on New Year’s Eve with the full and original version, you will have to rehearse your best Scottish accent. No-one will understand a word you are singing, but that is no different from usual with Auld Lang Syne.
When that ball drops in Times Square Tuesday night, or the clock strikes midnight wherever you are, Auld Lang Syne will fill the air. Raise your glass, and join in, with gusto. Happy New Year!
By Kate Henderson