The following is a guest post from Music Reference Specialist James Wintle.
There is many an old familiar song running through the collective memory of the Western world that will occasionally cause one to sit back with a puzzled look and wonder: “Do I actually understand what I’m saying right now?” Foremost among these is Auld Lang Syne. Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the lyrics of the song in 1788, or more accurately, compiled the lyrics, since elements of the work were taken from a variety of sources, some dating back to the sixteenth century. And like most of Burns’s writing, it is in Scottish dialect. The title translates roughly to “Good old times” and bids the listener to share a drink with old friends and remember the good times that they shared, even if they are not together. In addition to the dialect, the meaning of the song is obscured by the fact that we rarely, if ever, see the words written down. It further complicate matters that we usually sing the first verse only and ignore the context provided by the rest of the lyrics. However, even the first verse, which was famously baffling to Billy Crystal’s character in the film When Harry met Sally, becomes much less baffling when one sees that the first phrase is, in fact, a rhetorical question and not a declarative statement. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?”
Spoiler alert: You should not forget all of your old acquaintances.
All five verses of Auld lang syne are printed in the sheet music linked below in this article, although the order of the verses is changed from Burns’s original order with the original second verse in the fifth position. The familiar tune, which was chosen by Burns’s publisher, derives from a traditional Scottish folk-dance tune, possibly Sir Alexander Don’s strathspey. It is difficult to say for certain since tunes written for the same dance-steps tend to have similar rhythmic motifs and melodic contour.
The song’s early popularity in the United States can be explored in The Library of Congress’s online presentation Early American Sheet Music in which one can find eleven copies of the song, in various versions, published in the United States before 1820. Of special interest is a particularly flowery English translation and a set of variations for piano or harp.
By 1818, it had become popular enough to be easily recognized by English theater audiences as a quintessentially Scottish song in the subtitle of Isaac Popcock’s “operatic drama” Rob Roy MacGregor; or, “Auld Lang Syne.”
In this context, “operatic drama” means a play with an appropriately melodramatic plot and interpolated songs. The newly composed songs in the play were written by English composer John Davy (1763-1824), however, Auld lang syne retained its familiar melody. Although the libretto includes no indication of the music, this can be confirmed in an American publication of the song Auld Lang Syne which includes the subtitle “As Sung by Mr. Darley in the Opera of Rob Roy Macgregor.” Comparing this copy with others found on the Library’s web site, one can see that Mr. Darley included a number of elegant grace notes and “scotch snap” rhythms, not found in most publications, adding a jaunty swing to the melody that calls for a faster tempo than what we usually hear today.
Through examining just a few of the sources on the Library’s web site, one can gain a deeper understanding of the lyrics of this often-sung, but rarely contemplated song, its origins, and its early performance practice. So, this New Year’s Eve you can be the one to suggest, just before the stroke of midnight, that your party might appreciate the meaning of Auld lang syne more fully if they sing all five verses, perhaps with a lesser-known English translation, add in a few grace notes, and for kindness sake, pick up the tempo.