Thursday, December 29, 2011

Auld Lang Syne: History and Meaning

We’ve all heard it, that bittersweet song sung at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. I must confess that I could never reconcile the hope of new and wonderful beginnings with this woeful tune, so I did a little research on a tradition I found so dichotomous.

The song was first published by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1796, but its true genesis is not definitively known. Burns published the song after hearing an old man singing it in a tavern in the Ayrshire area of Scotland. And like so many folk tunes, it could have been born hundreds of years before that. Burns himself wrote to a friend, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” There is, however evidence of Burns using not only what he heard the elderly gentleman sing, but utilizing bits from other old songs, inserting some of his own talent in the places in between.

For Americans, it was Guy Lombardo who popularized the song; it became a standard offering from Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, but was first played by the band in the states at a New Year’s Eve party, at the stroke of midnight, at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

But the magic of the song, the ability to touch even the coldest heart, has traversed the globe. Songs based upon the melody, and the underlying meaning of the song, appear in France as “This is just a goodbye, my brothers (Ce n'est qu'un au revoir mes frères) and is sung at moments of great farewell, as it is in Peru, Germany, Greece, and Chile. In Hungary and Japan, it is a popular graduation song. And in Taiwan, it is used as a funeral song.

The genesis revealed, the song itself remains, still, an enigma for most people. The title can be translated in a variety of ways to bring the singer to a heartfelt meaning. The literal translation is, “old long since.” But that doesn’t help much. If more idiomatic translations are used, it flows through to, “long, long ago,” “days gone by” or “old times.” Singing the first line of the chorus, “For Auld Lang Syne” is, in essence, singing, “for the sake of old times.” Ah, finally, a sentiment in keeping with the moment. As we raise our cup “for the sake of old times,” we are promising to remember those who have passed with kindness. But if we look a little more deeply at the translation, we find a stronger sentiment, one of hope, one of dedication to those who are with us in this moment.

Scottish Verse (Translation)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, (Should old acquaintance be forgot,)
And never brought to mind? (And never brought to mind?)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot (Should old acquaintance be forgot,)
And auld lang syne. (And long, long ago.)

For auld lang syne, my jo, (And for long, long ago, my dear)
For auld lang syne, (For long, long ago,)
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, (We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp! (And surely you’ll buy your pint-jug!)
And surely I'll buy mine! (And surely I’ll buy mine!)
And we'll take a cup of kindness yet, (And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)


We twa hae run about the braes (We two have run about the hills)
And pu'd the gowans fine; (And pulled the daisies fine;)
But we've wander'd mony a weary foot (But we’ve wandered many the weary foot)
Sin auld lang syne. (Since long, long ago.)


We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn, (We two have paddled in the stream,)
Frae mornin' sun till dine; (From morning sun till dine;)
But seas between us braid hae roar'd (But seas between us broad have roared)
Sin auld lang syne. (Since long, long ago.)


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere! (And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!)
And gie's a hand o' thine! (And give us a hand of yours!)
And we'll tak a right guid willy waught, (And we’ll take a draught of good-will)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)

So what has my research into this tradition truly revealed? For this humble author, who has learned more than her fair share of life’s lessons, it is this, and to you all I wish…

That the calluses of your life be rubbed away;
That the beauty of your life find a place in your heart,
and are remembered from day to day.
And may the road that stretches out ahead,
be filled with nothing but kindness instead.

Happy New Year to one and all

1 comment:

Debra Brown said...

Thanks! I love learning the sources and roots of today.