“Auld Land Syne”—the song that everyone drunkenly croons just after the ball drops and the confetti begins to swirl to mark the start to a brand new year. No one ever seems to know the words (something about forgetting old acquaintances?) or what they mean (why would we want to forget people? That’s not very festive), but, in America, it’s as much a part of New Years’ tradition as champagne and party horns. But why?
The lyrics to the song come from a poem written by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788, set to an old folk tune. Its title is believed to be an old Scottish way of saying “a long time ago.” Phrases like “In the days of auld lang syne” crop up in other Scottish fairytales and poems, usually as a way of saying “Once Upon a Time.”
The history of the song itself has a fable-like quality to it, as Robert Burns allegedly sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with 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.”
While it still causes confusion, it is believed that the opening lines of the song are meant to be rhetorical; “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?” therefore means we should have a drink in honor of whatever is passing, and remember old friends.
When the Scots immigrated to America in the 19th century, they inevitably brought the song with them. But its enormous popularity can largely be attributed to the Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo.
Long before the infamous ball-drop, New Years Eve was marked in NYC by his annual end-of-the-year concert, which included his traditional rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”
In 1965, he explained how he himself came to associate the song with the end of the year to Life Magazine:
“Auld Lang Syne is our theme song—and was long before anyone ever heard us on the radio. In our particular part of western Ontario, where there’s a large Scottish population, it was traditional for bands to end every dance with Auld Lang Syne. We didn’t think it was known here. When we left Canada we had no idea we’d every play it again.”
If you want to see the legendary singer in action, check out his rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”–his final one–on the eve of 1977, after performing for 48 years in a row. And to make the most of your 2018, try making any of the 12 Creative New Year’s Resolutions You’ll Actually Want to Keep.
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