New Year's song remains ingrained in public mind
By Stephen Lynch| The Orange County Register
Friday, December 31, 1999

Depending on where you celebrate New Year's Eve tonight, the turntables will spin Prince's 1999, Barry Manilow's It's Just Another New Year's Eve, or even, heaven forbid, Will Smith's Will 2K.

But at midnight, in almost every nightclub and home, on every television and radio, the song will be the same: Auld Lang Syne.

"It just fits the moment," says Tyrone Traher, who has studied the origins of the song. "It's traditional. Kind of like how Amazing Grace is always played at a funeral."

Except that most people can make it past the first line of Amazing Grace.

"Yes," Mr. Traher agrees with a chuckle. "No one seems to know all the words."

He pauses for a moment.

"Come to think of it, I've honestly never read all the words to the song," he concedes.

So there you have it: a Gaelic-riddled song with an old-fashioned melody that many Americans sing as "should auld acquaintance be forgot ..." and then trail off into a hum.

Our national New Year's anthem. How'd it happen? Glad you asked.

Auld Lang Syne means "old long since" and is adapted from a traditional Scottish folk tune. The basic words date to at least 1711, though some scholars say it was mentioned as early as 1677. Scottish poet Robert Burns is credited with first publishing it, in the mid-1790s, and, researchers say, smoothing out some of the verses and changing the melody.

The song recalls the days gone by and says we will always remember them. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" it asks. No, the chorus replies: "For auld lang syne (for times gone by), we'll tak (drink) a cup o' kindness yet."

As for the other lyrics, Verse 2 refers to friends at separate places (or pubs), drinking to each other. Verses 3 and 4 talk about a long journey to find that friend, running "about the braes" (hillsides), and "pou'd the gowans fine" (pulled the pretty daisies), and getting tired doing so ("wander'd mony a weary fit," or "a weary foot" depending on the version). It continues with wading streams ("paidl'd in the burn"), from dusk until dinnertime, but even then, broad ("braid") seas roar between them.

But finally, in the last verse, the friends find each other. And they "tak a right guid-willie waught" ("drink a goodwill drink") for times gone by.

It wasn't Burns, however, who turned this misty-eyed tune into a New Year's tradition. That would be Guy Lombardo, who first heard the song in his youth from Scottish immigrants in his hometown of London, Ontario.

Mr. Traher, who organizes the Royal Canadian Big Band Music Festival and tribute to Lombardo every year in London, says the song stuck in the musician's head. When Lombardo formed an orchestra with his brother in 1919, they arranged the piece and made it part of their repetoire.

"It seemed appropriate for New Year's -- a time to look back," Mr. Traher says. So when the Lombardo brothers got the chance to headline a New Year's Eve party in New York in 1929, they played Auld Lang Syne near midnight, then counted down.

For nearly 50 years after that, Guy Lombardo and his orchestra played New Year's Eve radio, and later, television specials from the Waldorf Astoria.

"Prior to Dick Clark, there was Guy Lombardo," Mr. Traher says, and though Lombardo died in 1977, Auld Lang Syne became a staple.

Now there are pop versions of the song, disco remixes -- even a controversial British single of the Lord's Prayer sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne topping the charts in the United Kingdom this month. George Reynoso, an independent music retailer in El Paso, Texas, sells a CD through his Web site (www.newyearseve-song.com/) that includes country, polka and dance versions of the standard.

"The Lombardo version is sleepy, dreamy, it definitely needed an update," Mr. Reynoso says.

He adds that he got the idea from Corrido de Auld Lang Syne, a hard-to-find Mexican dance version of the song.

"It's engrained in the consciousness," Mr. Reynoso says of Auld Lang Syne's appeal.

And even though people aren't sure what it means, it sounds sad and soothing at once, he says. "It's a song about loss, but also about love -- a hope that you'll see the same people you love next year."

Really?

"Well, that's the way I think about it," Mr. Reynoso says. "But no, I don't know the words."

Sing up

Here is an old Scots version of Auld Lang Syne:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And days of auld lang syne?

Chorus (repeated between stanzas):

For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne

We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint stoop

And surely I'll be mine

And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes

And pou'd the gowans fine

But we've wander'd mony a weary foot

Sin' auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn

Frae mornin' sun till dine

But seas between us braid hae roared

Sin' auld lang syne.

And here's a hand, my trusty fiere

And gi'e's a hand o' thine

And we'll tak a right good willy waught

For auld lang syne.

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