The song Auld Lang Syne must be as worldwide, if not more worldwide, than Amazing Grace even though its usually sung with the lyrics of “ah um, rrr, um, rah, rah, ah um Old Lang Sine”.
Its also credited as a Rabbie Burns, Robert Burns song. However, as with Salley Gardens by W.B. Yeats, it happened to be a learned song that Robert Burns shaped up. In old texts Robert Burns does make this clear too.
However the distribution of Auld Lang Syne seems to have become awfully distorted
Distorted through the spread of Colonial Britain, including the improvised plum exploding lyrics of “ah, umm etc… “ for most of the lines
This revered song is said to have been written by Rabbie Burns in 1788, but the song can be traced back to a traditional song of the 15th century that was “nicked” byGeorge Bannatyne and inserted into his manuscript of Scottish poetry in 1586 with the title of "Auld kindness Foryett," which still translates today as "auld acquaintances forgot" in the tone of what we understand today as “should our friends be forgotten”
There is also a song called “Old Longsyne” published in the Watson’s collection of Scottish poems, published in 1711 that has been credited to Sir Robert Aytoun, a courtier of James the Sixth of England and Sir Robert became private secretary to the Queen. However his authorship has been challenged as its content does not relate to his politics and way he lived. “Old Langsyne” has been credited as being written by a “rebellious” author, and some say this was Francis Sempill of Beltrees from a family of bards who’s lands were seized by the Crown.
There’s also a song by Allan Ramsay called "Auld Lang Syne" that starts with the lyrics
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Tho’ they return with scars?"
published in the first volume "Tea Table Miscellany," in 1724.
The first reference of this song being connected to Robert Burns was a letter he wrote to his friend Mrs Dunlop on December 17th, 1788, saying, "There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul," and continued with a personal poetic quote "Light lie the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment!"
In another letter to George Thomson during September, 1793, Robert Burns included Auld Lang Syne with some other Scottish songs and music. He did explain to George that he had collected the song from “olden times” but as far as he knew nobody had transcribed it to notation and print. He also added that the song’s music was very mediocre and could be adapted to many other more interesting airs.
At about the same time Robert Burns sent a copy to James Johnson to add to his "Scots Musical Museum" collection of songs. This version was printed and published in December 1796. This was the first time Auld Lang Syne was published in public print, five months after Burns died. It has since been learned that Burns did indeed swap some old lines of this version of the song with lines of his own
In July 1799 a shorter version of the Johnson version of the song was published in Thomson’s Select "Songs of Scotland" but this time to the tune that we are most familiar with today.
I feel this is very unfortunate as the Johnson published version, though perhaps too long for midnight Hogmanay mumblings, provides a continuity of the song that makes sense. In the Johnson published lyrics it is assumed that the friends have just met for social enjoyment and a “cup of kindness” is immediately passed round to fire enthusiasm for times to come. The song exudes remembrance of happy days of youth but also reflects sombre reflections on having to part from birthplace during manhood. In this end this song becomes like the Irish Parting Glass song.
In the shorter Thomson’s version, friends meet, join hands, return to their pint mugs and discuss drinking more pints. The passion of the Johnson version literally transforms into a celebration of having a fairly meaningless “piss-up”. What an awful corruption, and far from the spirit that I am sure Robert Burns intended for the distribution of the song.
Regarding the music
In some ways I find it odd that the old bardic tradition of writing words and supporting it with music developed into separate crafts of poetry and music composition. Poets no longer become responsible for the music that may surround their words. This opens a long debate as we all know of wonderful marriages of words and music compiled by different people that one person alone may not have created.
To me, poets too easily throw their words into the public naked, which can also mean better interpretation at times than with the surround of music. However, I do feel that poetry is no more than words of man and music is the hand of the great spirit, of God itself. When poetry is embraced by music it transcends us into a veil between the two worlds of earth and spirit. Of course, many people listening to a naked poet can, in their own minds, weave their own spirit music into the words and experience passion from the poetry.
Somehow, I blame Queen Elizabeth for the emergence of naked poets. In Ireland, harper bards were forever escaping down “burrows” to avoid the de-capitating addictions of loyalists to Elizabeth, so the bards emerged as poets, with words, no harps but kept their heads.
When we think of Robert Burns once we get beyond haggis, neaps and fine malts, we merely think of poet and somehow forget the passion that Robert Burns has for melodies that were a perfect fit for his words. He was determined that his words were sung, presumably so they were shared with the harmonics of both worlds of man and spirit, though I am sure he translated this different, maybe he described words and music as creating a “marriage of lust and love”. That seems to be something like the faith he followed.
So as you may sing a garbled version of Auld Lang Syne tonight, please consider that what you are singing may well be purely a personal blessing to attempt to clear your conscience about any doubts of the value of an indulgent “piss up”
However, if you would like to sing this wonderful song in the way that Burns intended, as a passionate tribute to friends you may ne’er see gather again its worth seeking out the few recordings that honour this.
One of them is NOT the Kenneth McKellar version
One authentic version I know is by Roy Gullane of the Tannahill Weavers.
We twa hae rin aboot the braes
And pu'd the gowans fine
We've wandered many's the weary step
Since Auld Lang Syne
We twa he paidled in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine
But seas between us brade he roared
Since Auld Lang Syne
Aye and surely you'll be your pint stoup
And surely I'll be mine
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne
So here's a hand my trusty frien'
And here's a haud o' thine
We'll drink a right guid wullie waught
For the sake o' Auld Lang Syne
For Auld Lang Syne my dear
For Auld Lang Syne
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet
For the sake o' Auld Lang Syne