Auld Lang Syne

By Siiri Gilness

 

Revelers all over the world will ring in the New Year to a familiar tune this week:

 

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And auld lang syne

 

It’s said to be one of the three most popular songs in the English language (along with “Happy Birthday” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”).  But what does “auld lang syne” mean, and why is it the perennial anthem of the New Year?

 

“Auld lang syne” is a Scottish phrase; when literally translated to English, it means “old long since,” and it has loosely come to mean “time gone by.”  The wistful verses of the song evoke memories of friends and times spent with them.

 

“Auld Lang Syne” was written by the Scottish bard Robert Burns in 1788.  Burns’s lyrics were derived from other traditional Scottish poems, the earliest thought to be an anonymous ballad dating from 1586, and another being a poem called “Old Long Syne” published in 1711.

 

Robert Burns originally set his words to a melody quite different from the one we know now.  It wasn’t until 1799 (three years after Burns’s death) that the words to “Auld Lang Syne” were applied to an old Scottish folk tune, giving us the familiar melody we all know today.

 

“Auld Lang Syne” became a New Year’s Eve theme when Guy Lombardo and his orchestra played it at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York as the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1929.   It was the first New Year’s Eve performance by Lombardo and his band, and they would go on to ring in the New Year live on radio, and then television, for 48 years, with “Auld Lang Syne” becoming a staple of the band and of New Year’s Eve celebrations.

 

The final verse of the song (translated here into present-day English) embodies its timeless tribute to friendships and fond memories:

 

And there’s a hand, my trusty friend

And give us a hand of yours

And we’ll take a deep draught of good will

For long, long ago.

Art Matters is a weekly column sponsored by Leach Theatre, a division of Student Affairs, on the campus of Missouri S&T, and produced by Emily Brickler, Managing Director of the theatre and ten-year veteran teacher with a Masters of Art in Teaching from Webster University.

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