Racheal Owens is the host of Good News England. Originally from Wolverhampton, England she is a singer, actress and teaching artist now based in New York City. She appeared in her first musical at the age of 11 and theatre has been a driving force in her life ever since. Passionate about mentoring aspiring young performers, Racheal has been teaching alongside performing since 2009. She also plays the piano, is an avid baker and a self professed foodie! Racheal comes from a close knit family who she misses a lot, particularly her two daschunds.
While she loves living in the States, her British roots are hugely important to her and she is excited to share some great British traditions and culture.
“Auld Lang Syne” (Scots pronunciation: [ˈɔːl(d) lɑŋˈsəin]: note “s” rather than “z”) is a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song (Roud # 6294). It is well known in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world, its traditional use being to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight. By extension, it is also sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending to other occasions. The international Boy Scout youth movement, in many countries, uses it as a close to jamborees and other functions.
The song’s Scots title may be translated into English literally as “old long since”, or more idiomatically, “long long ago”, “days gone by” or “old times”. Consequently “For auld lang syne”, as it appears in the first line of the chorus, might be loosely translated as “for (the sake of) old times”.
The phrase “Auld Lang Syne” is also used in similar poems by Robert Ayton (1570–1638), Allan Ramsay (1686–1757), and James Watson (1711) as well as older folk songs predating Burns. Matthew Fitt uses the phrase “In the days of auld lang syne” as the equivalent of “Once upon a time…” in his retelling of fairy tales in the Scots language.
During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the pro-unionist campaign groups Better Together and Vote No Borders used the song to promote a no vote, taking the “auld acquaintance” in the first line to mean the union with England. The song also provides the name of the Auld Acquaintance cairn in Gretna, built by unionists from over the United Kingdom during the referendum campaign.
Robert Burns sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with the remark, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” Some of the lyrics were indeed “collected” rather than composed by the poet; the ballad “Old Long Syne” printed in 1711 by James Watson shows considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns’ later poem, and is almost certainly derived from the same “old song”.
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On Old long syne.
On Old long syne my Jo,
On Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
On Old long syne.
It is a fair supposition to attribute the rest of the poem to Burns himself.
Singing the song on Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve very quickly became a Scots custom that soon spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots (not to mention English, Welsh and Irish people) emigrated around the world, they took the song with them.
The song begins by posing a rhetorical question as to whether it is right that old times be forgotten, and is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships. Thomson’s Select Songs of Scotland was published in 1799 in which the second verse about greeting and toasting was moved to its present position at the end.
Most common use of the song involves only the first verse and the chorus. The last lines of both of these are often sung with the extra words “For the sake of” or “And days of”, rather than Burns’ simpler lines. This allows one note for each word, rather than the slight melisma required to fit Burns’ original words to the melody.
† dine = “dinner time”
‡ ch = voiceless velar fricative, /x/, at the back of the mouth like /k/ but with the mouth partly open like /f/. Similar to “Bach” in German
* syne = “since” or “then” – pronounced like “sign” rather than “zine”.
English composer William Shield seems to quote the “Auld Lang Syne” melody briefly at the end of the overture to his opera Rosina, which may be its first recorded use. The contention that Burns borrowed the melody from Shield is for various reasons highly unlikely, although they may very well both have taken it from a common source, possibly a strathspey called The Miller’s Wedding or The Miller’s Daughter. The problem is that tunes based on the same set of dance steps necessarily have a similar rhythm, and even a superficial resemblance in melodic shape may cause a very strong apparent similarity in the tune as a whole. For instance, Burns’ poemComing Through the Rye is sung to a tune that might also be based on the Miller’s Wedding. The origin of the tune of God Save the Queen presents a very similar problem and for just the same reason, as it is also based on a dance measure. (See the note in the William Shield article on this subject.)
In 1855, different words were written for the Auld Lang Syne tune by Albert Laighton and titled, “Song of the Old Folks.” This song was included in the tunebook, Father Kemp’s Old Folks Concert Tunes published in Boston, Massachusetts in 1860. For many years it was the tradition of the Stoughton Musical Society to sing this version in memory of those who had died that year.
Songwriter George M. Cohan quotes the first line of the “Auld Lang Syne” melody in the second to last line of the chorus of You’re a Grand Old Flag. It is plain from the lyrics that this is deliberate.
In the Sacred Harp choral tradition, an arrangement of it exists under the name “Plenary”. The lyrics are a memento mori and begin with the words “Hark! from the tomb a doleful sound”. Another Christian arrangement, once popular in India, is “Hail! Sweetest, Dearest Tie That Binds” by Amos Sutton.
At New Year
“Auld Lang Syne” is traditionally sung at the conclusion of New Year gatherings in Scotland and around the world, especially in English-speaking countries.
It is common practice that everyone joins hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor. At the beginning of the last verse, everyone crosses their arms across their breast, so that the right hand reaches out to the neighbour on the left and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, while still holding hands. When the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined.
In countries other than Scotland the hands are often crossed from the beginning of the song at variance with Scottish custom. The Scottish practice was demonstrated by the Queen at the Millennium Dome celebrations for the year 2000. The English press berated her for not “properly” crossing her arms, unaware that she was correctly following the Scottish tradition.
Other than New Year
As well as celebrating the New Year, “Auld Lang Syne” is very widely used to symbolise other “endings/new beginnings” – including farewells, funerals (and other memorials of the dead), graduations, the end of a (non-New Year) party or a Boy Scout gathering, the election of a new government, the last lowering of the Union Jackas a British colony achieves independence and even as a signal that a retail store is about to close for the day. The melody is also widely used for other words, especially hymns, the songs of sporting and other clubs, and even national anthems. In Scotland and other parts of Britain, in particular, it is associated with celebrations and memorials of Robert Burns. The following list of specific uses is far from comprehensive.
In the English-speaking world
- In Scotland, it is often sung at the end of a céilidh or a dance.
- The tune is played, and sung by the crowd, in the final stages of the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
- In many Burns Clubs, it is sung at the end of the Burns supper.
- In Great Britain, it is played at the close of the annual Congress (conference) of the Trades Union Congress.
- The song is sung at the end of the Last Night of the Proms by the audience (rather than the performers) and so it is not often listed on the official programme.
- The song is played at the Passing Out Parade of Young Officers in the Royal Navy as they march up the steps of the Britannia Royal Naval College; and at the Sovereign’s Parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for young officers joining the British Army, as the cadets march up the steps of their famous Old College building – to the beat of the slow march, after the tune “Will ye no come back?”. This custom (or something very like it) is also followed in Naval and Military colleges in many other countries, especially members and former members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Examples include the Royal Military College of Canada, the Royal Military College (Malaysia), the National Defence Academy (India), the Indian Military Academy, the Officers Training Academy (India), thePakistan Military Academy, Bangladesh Military Academy and at the equivalent colleges in Singapore, Burma and Nigeria.
- Since 2007, the melody has been used as an introduction to the mass chorus of “America the Beautiful” that is played by the twelve finalist corps at the Finals Retreat at the Drum Corps International World Championships. Coincidentally, “Auld Lang Syne” and “America the Beautiful” have the same metre, and the lyrics can be sung interchangeably.
In non-English-speaking countries
Auld Lang Syne has been translated into many languages, and the song is widely sung all over the world. The song’s pentatonic scale matches scales used in Korea, Japan, India, China and other East Asian countries, which has facilitated its “nationalisation” in the East. The following particular examples mostly detail things that are special or unusual about the use of the song in a particular country.
- In India and Bangladesh, the melody was the direct inspiration for the popular Bengali song “Purano shei diner kotha” (Memories of the Good Old Days) composed by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and forms one of the more recognisable tunes in Rabindra Sangeet (Rabindra’s Songs), a body of work of 2,230 songs and lyrical poems that form the backbone of Bengali music.
- In Denmark, the song was translated in 1927 by the famous Danish poet Jeppe Aakjær. Much like Robert Burns‘ use of dialect, Aakjær translated the song into the Danish dialect sallingbomål, a dialect from the northern part of western Jutland, south of the Limfjord, often hard for other Danes to understand. The song “Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo” (“Should auld acquantaince be forgot”), is an integral part of the Danish Højskole tradition, and often associated with more rural areas and old traditions. Also, the former Danish rock group Gasolin modernised the melody in 1974 with their pop ballad Stakkels Jim (“Poor Jim”).