"Auld Lang Syne" (Scots pronunciation: [ˈɔːl(d) lɑŋˈsəin]: note "s" rather than "z") is a popular song, particularly in the English-speaking world. Traditionally, it is sung to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. By extension, it is also often heard at funerals, graduations, and as a farewell or ending to other occasions; for instance many branches of the Scouting movement use it to close jamborees and other functions.
The poem's Scots title may be translated into standard English as "old long since" or, less literally, "long long ago", "days gone by", "times long past" or "old times". Consequently, "For auld lang syne", as it appears in the first line of the chorus, might be loosely translated as "for the sake of old times".
The phrase "Auld Lang Syne" is also used in similar poems by Robert Ayton (1570–1638), Allan Ramsay (1686–1757), and James Watson (1711), as well as older folk songs predating Burns.Matthew Fitt uses the phrase "in the days of auld lang syne" as the equivalent of "once upon a time" in his retelling of fairy tales in the Scots language.
Robert Burns sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum in 1788 with the remark, "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man." Some of the lyrics were indeed "collected" rather than composed by the poet; the ballad "Old Long Syne" printed in 1711 by James Watson shows considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns' later poem, and is almost certainly derived from the same "old song".
To quote from the first stanza of the James Watson ballad:
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne.
Chorus: On old long syne my Jo, On old long syne, That thou canst never once reflect, On old long syne.
It is a fair supposition to attribute the rest of the poem to Burns himself.
There is some doubt as to whether the melody used today is the same one Burns originally intended, but it is widely used in Scotland and in the rest of the world.
Singing the song on Hogmanay or New Year's Eve very quickly became a Scots custom that soon spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots (not to mention English, Welsh and Irish people) emigrated around the world, they took the song with them.
The tune to which "Auld Lang Syne" is commonly sung is a pentatonic Scots folk melody, probably originally a sprightly dance in a much quicker tempo. The song originally had another melody, which can be traced to around 1700 and was deemed "mediocre" by Robert Burns. The famous melody was first used in 1799, in the second volume of George Thomson's Select Songs of Scotland.
Older versions of the original song which use other melodies have survived in isolated Scottish communities. The American folk song collector James Madison Carpenter collected a version of "Auld Lang Syne" which appears to be distantly related to the original folk song version from a man named William Still of Cuminestown, Aberdeenshire in the early 1930s. William Still can be heard singing the song on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website.
The song begins by posing a rhetorical question: Is it right that old times be forgotten? The answer is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships. Alternatively, "Should" may be understood to mean "if" (expressing the conditional mood) referring to a possible event or situation.
George Thomson's Select Songs of Scotland was published in 1799 in which the second verse about greeting and toasting was moved to its present position at the end.
Most common usage of the song involves only the first verse and the chorus. The last lines of both of these are often sung with the extra words "For the sake of" or "And days of", rather than Burns' simpler lines. This makes the song strictly syllabic, with just one note per syllable.
The "singable" English version given here keeps the Scots phrase "auld lang syne" rather than translating it as "long long ago" or something like that — see the third paragraph of this article for a full explanation of this phrase.
ən ðeːrz ə ho̜ːn mɑ trʌs.tɪ fiːr
əŋ ɡiːz ə ho̜ːn o ðəin
ən wiːl tɑk ə rɪxt ɡɪd wʌ.lɪ wɑːxt
fər o̜ːld lɑŋ səin
^Scots "lang syne" (close cognate with standard English "long since". Variations are 'Syn', and 'Sin', all being contracted forms of 'Sithen'). Properly pronounced with a hard "S" (like "sign") rather than the soft "Z" sound usually sung.
English composer William Shield seems to quote the "Auld Lang Syne" melody briefly at the end of the overture to his opera Rosina (1782), which may be its first recorded use. The contention that Burns borrowed the melody from Shield is for various reasons highly unlikely, although they may very well both have taken it from a common source, possibly a strathspey called "The Miller's Wedding" or "The Miller's Daughter". The problem is that tunes based on the same set of dance steps necessarily have a similar rhythm, and even a superficial resemblance in melodic shape may cause a very strong apparent similarity in the tune as a whole. For instance, Burns' poem "Comin' Thro' the Rye" is sung to a tune that might also be based on the "Miller's Wedding". The origin of the tune of "God Save the Queen" presents a very similar problem and for just the same reason, as it is also based on a dance measure. (See the note in the William Shield article on this subject.)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
In 1792, the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn arranged Auld Lang Syne as one of over 400 Scottish folk song arrangements commissioned by George Thomson and the publishers William Napier and William Whyte; his arrangement may have helped popularise the song.Ludwig van Beethoven also wrote an arrangement of Auld Lang Syne (WoO 156/11) published as part of his 12 Scottish Folksongs (1814). Both of these classical versions use the original brisk strathspey rhythm.
Songwriter George M. Cohan quotes the first line of the "Auld Lang Syne" melody in the second to last line of the chorus of “You're a Grand Old Flag”. It is plain from the lyrics that this is deliberate; the melody is identical except the first syllable of the word "forgot".
English composer of light music Ernest Tomlinson wrote a Fantasia on Auld Lang Syne (1976), which in its 20 minutes weaves in 152 quotations from pieces by other popular and classical composers.
In the Sacred Harp choral tradition, an arrangement of it exists under the name "Plenary". The lyrics are a memento mori and begin with the words "Hark! from the tomb a doleful sound". Another Christian setting, using the name "Fair Haven" for the same tune, uses the text "Hail! Sweetest, Dearest Tie That Binds" by Amos Sutton. In a similar vein, in 1999 Cliff Richard released a setting of the Lord's prayer (as "The Millennium Prayer") to the melody.
British soldiers in World War I trenches sang "We're Here Because We're Here" to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne".
"Auld Lang Syne" is traditionally sung at the conclusion of New Year gatherings in Scotland and around the world, especially in English-speaking countries.
At Hogmanay in Scotland, it is common practice that everyone joins hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor. At the beginning of the last verse (And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!/and gie's a hand o' thine!), everyone crosses their arms across their breast, so that the right hand reaches out to the neighbour on the left and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, while still holding hands. When the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined. The tradition of singing the song when parting, with crossed hands linked, arose in the mid-19th century among Freemasons and other fraternal organisations.
Outside Scotland the hands are often crossed from the beginning of the song, at variance with Scottish custom. The Scottish practice was demonstrated by Queen Elizabeth II at the Millennium Dome celebrations for the year 2000. Some press outlets berated her for not "properly" crossing her arms, unaware that she was correctly following the Scottish tradition.
At other times
As well as celebrating the New Year, "Auld Lang Syne" is very widely used to symbolise other "endings/new beginnings" – including farewells, funerals (and other memorials of the dead), graduations, the end of a (non-New Year) party, jamborees of the Scout Movement, the election of a new government, the last lowering of the Union Jack as a British colony achieves independence and even as a signal that a retail store is about to close for the day. The melody is also widely used for other words, especially hymns, the songs of sporting and other clubs, and even national anthems (South Korea in the 1940s, and the Maldives until 1972). In Scotland and other parts of Britain, in particular, it is associated with celebrations and memorials of Robert Burns. The following list of specific uses is far from comprehensive.
In the English-speaking world
In Scotland, it is often sung at the end of a cèilidh, a dance, and at weddings. At weddings, it is performed in the same way as at New Year, but the bride and groom are often lifted up in the centre of the circle.
The song is sung at the end of the Last Night of the Proms. Depending on whether an "official" performance is planned it may not be listed on the programme but in this case the audience will maintain the tradition and sing it themselves, with or without backup from the performers.
The song is very widely used by the international Scout Movement, where it is a popular closing song for jamborees and other occasions.
In non-English-speaking countries
"Auld Lang Syne" has been translated into many languages, and the song is widely sung all over the world. The song's pentatonic scale matches scales used in Korea, Japan, India, China and other Asian countries, which has facilitated its "nationalisation" in the East. The following particular examples mostly detail things that are special or unusual about the use of the song in a particular country.
National anthem of South Korea from 1945 to 1948
In Denmark, the song was translated in 1927 by the Danish poet Jeppe Aakjær. Much like Robert Burns' use of dialect, Aakjær translated the song into Sallingbomål, a form of the Jutlandic dialect. The song "Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo" is an integral part of the Danish Højskole tradition, and often associated with more rural areas and old traditions.
In Germany, the lyrics are "Nehmt Abschied, Brüder", traditionally performed at New Year and often at the end of an event. The melody was adapted to the German text in 1946 von Claus Ludwig Laue.
In West Bengal and Bangladesh, the melody was the direct inspiration for the Bengali folk song "Purano shei diner kotha" ("Memories of the Good Old Days"), composed by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and forms one of the more recognisable tunes in Rabindra Sangeet ("Rabindra's Songs"), a body of work of 2,230 songs and lyrical poems that form the backbone of Bengali music.
In Thailand, the song "Samakkhi Chumnum" (สามัคคีชุมนุม, 'together in unity') is set to the same melody. It is mainly sung after sporting fixtures and at the end of Boy Scout jamborees. The Thai lyrics are a patriotic song about the King and national unity, and many Thais are not aware of the song's Western origin.
In Japan, the melody is used for the song "Hotaru no Hikari" (The Light of the Fireflies), which has different lyrics. "Hotaru no Hikari" is played at many school graduation ceremonies, and at the end of the New Year's Eve show NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen. It is played in various establishments such as bars, restaurants, or department stores in Japan to let the customers know that the establishment is closing soon.
In Korea, the song is known as "Jakbyeol" (작별, Farewell) or (less commonly) as "Seokbyeol-ui Jeong" (석별의 정, The Feeling of Farewell). From 1919 to 1945 it served as the national anthem of the Korean exile government and from 1945 to 1948, it was the melody of Korea's national anthem. The lyrics used then were the same as the current South Korean national anthem.
In Francophone areas, the song is known as "Ce n'est qu'un au revoir" ["it is but a farewell"]. The French lyrics are not a literal translation of the original lyrics, and instead talk about people saying farewell, knowing they will meet again.
Before 1972, it was the tune for the anthem of the Maldives (with the current words).
In the mid-1980s, Afro-Peruvian singer Pepe Vásquez popularized a festejo-rhythm version called Jipi jay.
Use in films
The strong and obvious associations of the song and its melody have made it a common staple for film soundtracks from the very early days of "talking" pictures to the present—a large number of films and television series' episodes having used it for background, generally but by no means exclusively to evoke the New Year.
The first commercial recording was probably that of Frank C Stanley, who recorded the song in 1910 (which can be heard above).
As a standard in music, "Auld Lang Syne" has since been recorded many times, in every conceivable style, by many artists, both well-known and obscure.
Live and broadcast
1929: Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians performed it on New Year's Eve for decades until his death in 1977. Lombardo's 1947 Decca Records version is played in Times Square every New Year's immediately following the dropping of the ball.
^ abBurns, Robert (1947) [Transcribed 1788]. Maine, George Frederick (ed.). Songs from Robert Burns 1759–1796 (leather-bound sextodecimo). Collins Greetings Booklets (in English and Scots). Glasgow: Collins Clear-Type Press. pp. 47–48. This book was purchased at Burns Cottage, and was reprinted in 1967, and 1973.