How the Hell Did “Auld Lang Syne” Become the Official Song of New Year’s Eve?

As I write this, New Year’s Eve is sweeping westward with the rotation of the planet and man millions have already welcomed in 2014 by singing “Auld Lang Syne.”  The question, though, is “why?”  How did this music become so tightly associated with the flip from December 31 to January 1?

First, a little history.  The lyrics were written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788, piecing together fragments of unrelated earlier work. “Auld Lang Syne” can be translated as “old long ago” or perhaps more correctly, “the good old days.”  People found this melancholy notion pleasantly sentimental in a fast-changing world.

After Burns published his poem, someone–we’re not sure who–set the poem to the music that we know today.  Those musical phrases also appear to be cobbled together from disparate sources.

In 1799, George Thomson, a publisher in Edinburgh, picked the song for his Select Collection of Original Scottish Arts.  It was this publication that gave the song its original power and it became a traditional part of end-of-year celebrations in Scotland.  Emigration eventual spread it throughout the Empire and beyond.  Canada and the US were the first to adopt the song.

“Auld Lang Syne” because very popular during the US Civil War went soldiers (many of them of Scottish decent) brought it out whenever thoughts turned to going home and ending the war forever.  Officers, thinking that the song was bad for morale, tried to suppress its singing, but to no avail.  Finally, when the South surrendered, General Grant ordered that the band play it at the signing ceremony.

The song also appeared in the trenches in World War 1 during the Christmas Truce early in the conflict.  Soldiers on both sides of No Man’s Land were known to sing it.

But it was the movies that really brought the song into the greater public consciousness, beginning with Charlie Chaplin’s use for a scene in the 1925 film, The Gold Rush.  Shirley Temple sang it for a dying solider in Wee Willie Winkie in 1937.  It’s also in the final scene of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

And let’s not forget the contributions of Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo whose Royal Canadian Big Band played it on his New Year’s Eve radio and TV shows every year from 1929 to 1977.

If you’re unclear of the lyrics–most of us are–here’s the whole thing.  Enjoy.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And auld lang syne?

Chorus:

For auld lang syne, my jo,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll be your pint-stowp

And surely I’ll be mine

And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet

For auld lang syne!

Chorus

We twa hae ran about the braes

And pu’d the gowans fine

But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit

Sin’ auld lang syne.

Chorus

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn

Frae morning sun til dine,

But seas between us braid hae roar’d

Sin’ auld lang syne.

Chorus

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere,

And gie’s a hand o’ thine,

And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught

For auld lang syne!

Chorus

(Via the BBC)

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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