Auld Lang Syne 101
special to the daily
Historians tell us that, back around 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylon, at the first of the year the king would strip naked and leave the city for 11 days while everyone took a vacation, no longer subject to his watchful eye. At the end of the 11 days he would reappear, clothed in new robes, and everyone would go back to work.
I’m all for it. I think the president should leave the country on Jan. 1 and everyone should take two weeks off from work. Whether or not he strips naked is his own choice ” I’d personally prefer that he doesn’t. But the important thing is that we would all get a break from not only work but from national politics as well.
While this particular New Year’s tradition didn’t survive through the ages, one or two others have. Certainly the one tradition that has endured worldwide, thanks to the Scots poet Robert Burns, is the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”.
“Auld Lang Syne” has become known to musicologists as “the song that nobody knows,” because it’s true ” all anybody ever knows of it is the first verse and the chorus. It’s amazing, when you consider that it’s probably the most sung song in the English language, next to “Happy Birthday.”
But then again, “Auld Lang Syne” ISN’T sung in English at all, but in idiomatic Scots dialect from the 1700s ” a language most Americans don’t cotton on to easily.
And not every country uses it exclusively as a New Year’s Eve song. In Japan, “Auld Lang Syne” is played in department stores to signify closing time. And one memorable New Year’s Eve, when I was performing in Sweden, instead of the venerable Scots favorite, everyone sang “Happy New Year To You” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” I felt like I was living in an alternate universe, where things had gotten just a mite mixed up.
But in most of the world, whether you’re at a swanky Waldorf-Astoria affair or a basement keg party, on the stroke of midnight you’re liable to hear a rocky attempt at the first verse, followed by a hearty bellowing of “For Auld Lang Syne My Dear” about 19 or 20 times.
Musicians performing on New Year’s Eve are prepared for this, and know that playing the subsequent verses is not only unnecessary but distracting to the singers.
It’s easy to pull up the original lyrics on the internet ” the familiar Burns transcription, which he first put to paper in 1788, as well as the Scottish Jacobite version that goes on in rather a gory fashion for about 80 verses.
As a handy dandy reference for Summit County celebrants on New Year’s Eve, here’s the original Robert Burns version, with all four verses followed by the chorus:
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot/And never brought to min?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot/And auld lang syne?
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp/ 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 pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot/ Sin’ auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidled i’ the burn/ From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d/ Sin auld lang syne.
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.
For auld lang syne, my dear/ For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’kindness yet/ For auld lang syne
In case you’re wondering, a “right guid-willie waught” means a draught of goodwill. Other translations: “Ye’ll be your pint-stowp etc.” means you’ll pay for your beer and I’ll pay for mine, and “pu’d the gowans” means to pull daisies. And for those truly Scots-dialectally-challenged, “Auld Lang Syne” merely means “times long past.” See? Piece of cake.
Mark Twain used to tell a story about how he learned to play the accordion as a young man while living in a boardinghouse. Since the only tune he mastered was “Auld Lang Syne,” he made it more interesting for himself by improvising on the melody.
One evening, the landlady asked him, “Do you know any other tune but that one?”
When he admitted that he didn’t, she said, “Well then, stick to it just as it is; don’t put any variations on it, because it’s rough enough on the boarders the way it is now.”
He may have followed her advice ” but he ended up getting kicked out anyway.
As a musician, nearly every New Year’s Eve of my adult life has been spent performing for people at various stages, usually advanced, of intoxication. I’m sure Mark Twain’s accordion improvisations had nothing on some of the versions I’ve heard over the years, but somehow, no one managed to get kicked out of the bar.
At least, not for singing.
Whether you sing it, play it, or just drink to it, Happy New Year, everyone ” and may you all tak a right guid-willie waught for Auld Lang Syne.
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