Every New Year's Eve millions of people around the world raise their voices in a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. How did a simple Scottish folk song, with words most people do not know or fully understand, become one of the world's most popular songs?
The Scottish bard, Robert Burns, is the man responsible. He wrote the lyrics in 1788 but the tune we know now does not first appear with the song until after his death. In 1799, Edinburgh publisher George Thomson included the song in his Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. Both the words and the tune appear to be based on earlier fragments which Burns "restored" but the power of the two together has become unstoppable. In fact, Auld Lang Syne is an international anthem and one of Scotland's gifts to the world.
Burns scholar, Thomas Keith, says it is a song of reunion not of parting, as some people think. It recalls happy days gone by, separation and coming back together. Mr. Keith says there is a family and friendship feeling to the song that everybody seems to immediately understand.
So what does Auld Lang Syne mean? It would translate into Standard English as "old long ago" or more colloquially "the good old days." In the modern idiom some might say "back in the day." It is a tale which looks back at old times with a friend from childhood and seeks to rekindle the past by a handshake and a goodwill drink (a guid willie-waught as Burns would have it).
The song's initial popularity coincided with the age of Scottish emigration, especially to Canada and the US, in the 19th Century. Its mood of family and friendship - and its good dose of melancholy - stayed in the hearts of the Scottish Diaspora and became stronger and more rooted as it became part of the countries they settled.
US military historian Robbie Wintemute says that during the American Civil War the Union tried to restrain singing of Auld Lang Syne because of the sentiments of returning home and reconciliation. However, after the signing of the surrender terms, General Grant ordered the band to play it, recognizing that the country and the soldiers had been through a tremendous upheaval and that now was a time for healing.
The international popularity and special significance of Auld Lang Syne was poignantly illustrated during the Christmas Truce at the start of World War 1. For a brief moment the guns fell silent and troops from both sides left the trenches to swap souvenirs and sing songs. According to a letter from Sir Edward Hulse, of the Scots Guards, the British and German soldiers joined together to sing Good King Wenceslas, The Tommies Song and finally Auld Lang Syne. Sir Edward wrote: "It was absolutely astounding and if I had seen it on a cinematograph I should have sworn it was faked."
In the early part of the 20th Century the film industry brought Auld Lang Syne to an even bigger audience. Charlie Chaplin used Auld Lang Syne for a New Year scene in the Gold Rush, a 1925 silent film which was re-released with a new score, devised by Chaplin, in 1942.
There was not a dry eye in the house when nine-year-old Shirley Temple sang the song to a dying soldier in the 1937 John Ford film Wee Willie Winkie, or during the final scene of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
The 1989 comedy When Harry Met Sally has this memorable exchange at a New Year's party when Billy Crystal's Harry gets distracted immediately after declaring his love for Meg Ryan's Sally:
Harry: "What does this song mean? My whole life, I don't know what this song means.
"I mean, '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, which is not possible because we already forgot?"
Sally: "Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it's about old friends."
Happy New Year, new and old friends! May our acquaintances not be forgot!
Your singing and pickin’ vp,