there have occasionally been other songs that made feeble attempts to displace
it, New Year’s
Eve belongs firmly to Auld Lang Syne and it promises to
remain supreme in defiance of any and all changes in musical tastes and styles.
of us know that the song comes from a poem
by the revered Ploughman Poet and Scottish national icon Robert Burns. But you may not know the whole
The Scottish Ploughman Poet Robert Burns.
his first blush of fame with the publication of his Kilarnock Poems in 1786,
Burns began his fruitful relationship with the editor and publisher James
Johnson who was preparing to publish his Scots Musical Museum. He collected and often rewrote
scores the songs of this great collection, which preserved traditional Scottish
music when it could have easily vanished. One of the songs he sent was Auld Lang Syne with the notation “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.”
was not quite true on a couple of counts. Other collectors had recorded variants and in 1711 James Watson published a version that showed considerable
similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns’ later poem and is almost
certainly derived from the same old song. Burns changed it from a romantic song about old lovers to a nostalgic drinking song of old
friends. Most of the words in Scotts we now sing were written by
his early death in 1796 at the age of only 37, the song took on a
special significance as a legacy
of the beloved poet.
when the song became associated with
New Year’s is unknown. It is possible
the earlier folk versions were already sung at that time. But was incorporated in Hogmanay—the last day of the old year and the first
of the new—celebrations by the mid-19th Century.
in the world celebrates New Years with zest
and ritual like the Scots. You can thank those dour old Calvinists of the National Kirk of Scotland—the
Presbyterians—for more completely scouring Christmas from the calendar
than Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans ever dreamed in England. If Scottish Catholics kept Christmas in their hearts, the kept their mouths
shut about it and the practice faded even in their communities. After the celebration of Christmas was no
longer outright banned it was still shunned
as being “too English” and did
not become a legal holiday in
Scotland until 1958 and only then because so many English were moving into
the border areas and were employed at firms in the big
has many quaint customs, but they
center on the stroke of midnight. Then the central room of a home hosting
the celebration ss cleared of furniture and guests join 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 neighbor 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 their arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined.
song spread rapidly around the globe thanks to the Scottish diaspora to British
Empire nations—especially Canada—and to the United States. Scottish
regiments spread the song even wider
and it was adapted for use by British
troops generally from India, to Africa, to the Middle East.
wasn’t until the 1890’s, however, that there was printed mention of the song being used publicly at New
Year’s in the United States, although it undoubtedly was sung in Scottish
communities. When the first illuminated ball was dropped in New York City’s Times Square in 1907
the song was so firmly identified with New Year’s that the crowd sang it
after the ball touched down.
But Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians
really cemented Auld Lang Syne as the
New Year’s Eve song. Lombardo first broadcast a New Year’s Eve program
on CBS Radio on December 31, 1928. He continued broadcasting from the Roosevelt Room until 1959, and then moved his base to the larger Waldorf Astoria. In 1959 the New Year’s Eve program was first aired
on CBS Television and continued
on that network for 21 years. After Lombardo’s death the song was still
played in all of the airings of the Times Square celebrations.