Sometimes in history great forces come together in such a memorable way that they can never be forgotten.
That’s the way it is with the traditional Auld Lang Syne, which began as a Gaelic folk tune, was updated 350 years ago by a Scottish poet and made popular by a Canadian band leader.
Few people know all the words of the classic New Year’s Eve song but they mumble their way through it every year and vow often that “next year, they’ll learn the words.”
It’s often been attributed to poet Robert Burns, who certainly did publish it in 1796. But it was Guy Lombardo and his dance band, The Royal Canadians who were responsible for getting people round the world to join hands on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve as they stood in a circle to reminisce about old acquaintances.
Perhaps in December 1929, following the October crash of the stock market that started the Great Depression, the world needed to remember good times. Maybe people desperately wanted to take a cup of kindness for auld lang syne.
That December 31, Guy Lombardo had his first gig to play at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. His show was also broadcast over the radio. The Royal Canadians’ rendition of Auld Lang Syne captured the mood of the millions of people who heard it performed that night.
The exact history of the song is unknown. It was a traditional Scottish folk song for centuries.
Translated exactly from Gaelic, the words auld lang syne mean old long since, or in a more grammatically correct way, days gone by or old time’s sake. Poet Robert Ayton (1570-1638) wrote about auld lang syne and so did Allan Ramsay (1686-1757). The words are quite similar in meaning to the English tradition of starting a fairy tale with once upon a time.
Robbie Burn’s version was likely penned in a letter he wrote in 1788 to a friend, Frances Anna Dunlop. He told Dunlop, “ There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs.”
The song was probably song often, or at least partially recited, whenever old friends got together. It’s a great drinking song. The chorus and the line about taking a cup of kindness yet, is about toasting to good fortune.
In his second verse Burns wrote, “And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp! And surely I’ll be mine. In plain English, what he said was, “ Surely you’ll buy your pint cup! And surely I’ll buy mine!”
After that 1929 performance, listening to Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians became a New Year’s tradition in many homes and parties.
Lombardo died in 1977, but it seems a fitting time of year to remember him and his slogan, “the sweetest music this side of Heaven,” for auld lang syne.