You speak Scottish? Of course you do. And I’ll bet you seven swans a-swimming to a partridge in a pear tree that in a few days you will be enthusiastically speaking it again.
Singing it, actually. And the Scots words you’ll be singing will include ‘auld’, ‘lang’ and ‘syne’.
The words mean, roughly, ‘for old long ago’, and it’s a song that people have been singing for 300 years. A Scot by the name of James Watson penned the first version back in 1711. In 1788 the great poet Robert Burns sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum along with a note saying that he “took it down from an old man” singing by a fire.
Burns subsequently ‘burnished’ the poem with his own lyrical genius and gave the world a keeper.
We’ve been singing it at least once a year ever since.
And not just in English-speaking countries.
There’s a Bengali song with the same melody called Memories of the Good Old Days. Chileans call their rendition The Farewell Song and sing it at funerals. Greeks sing a variation called Song of Farewell. It is also a song to say goodbye in Zimbabwe, with lyrics in Shona.
Sentimental people sway to the song in France, Hungary, Sudan and Taiwan. In the Netherlands it shows up as a Dutch football song.
A Danish rock band called Gasolin turned it into a hit pop ballad in 1974. The more reverential Japanese have a version called Hotaru no hikari which means “Glow of a Firefly”.
Mexican boy scouts, with the help of a mariachi band, sing “No es mas que un hasta luego…” (This is no more than a ‘see you later’…)
Nowadays, we usually only sing the first verse and the chorus but there are a couple of unsung verses that are mostly forgotten. One goes:
We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn
Frae morning sun till dine
But seas between us braid hae roared
Sin’ auld lang syne
(We two have paddled in the river
From morning time till dinner
But seas between us broad have roared
Since old long ago.)
People in English-speaking countries around the world do not as a rule sing Auld Lang Syne at football games, scout jamborees or rock concerts. We join our hands and sing this song once a year only, on New Year’s Eve.
We can thank a Canadian named Guy Lombardo for that.
On January 1, 1929, Europe was in turmoil and Hitler’s Nazis were stirring in the German basement. North America was poised on the threshold of The Great Depression.
In the Grill Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, bandleader Guy Lombardo tapped his baton to get the attention of his famous band The Royal Canadians and as the clock struck midnight they launched into Auld Lang Syne while a continent listened in on their radios.
They did the same thing live every New Year’s until 1976. Since then the Guy Lombardo recording has been played each year as part of the traditional Times Square ‘Ball Drop’
And you just know we’ll all gather ‘round to sing that song again this New Year’s Eve.
I probably won’t be there with you but I’ll offer you the last verse of Auld Lang Syne which is seldom, if ever, sung these days.
An’ there’s a hand, me trusty fiere
An’ gie’s a hand o’ thine
An’ we’ll tak a right gude willy-waught
For auld lang syne.
‘Fiere’ is Scottish for ‘friend’. ‘gude willy-waught’ means ‘good-will drink’.
You already know what ‘auld lang syne’ means.
Guid health, my fiere.
— Arthur Black lives on SaltSpring Island