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The truth about “Auld Lang Syne”

“…I may say, of myself and Copperfield, in words we have sung together before now, that
‘We twa hae run about the braes
And pu’d the gowans fine’
‘—in a figurative point of view—on several occasions. I am not exactly aware,’ said Mr. Micawber, with the old roll in his voice, and the old indescribable air of saying something genteel, ‘what gowans may be, but I have no doubt that Copperfield and myself would have frequently taken a pull at them, if it had been feasible.'”

Over the years since it was written, many millions must have sung ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (roughly translated as ‘days long past’) while sharing Mr. Micawber’s ignorance of what of its words actually mean. Most of us go through the year without singing a single song by Robert Burns, and then, within the space of 25 days, sing this one twice on January 1st and 25th. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has become a fixture of the New Year, Burns night, and many a wedding and ceilidh. It is often sung in the same way: the singers in a circle, holding hands and crossing arms for the last verse (“And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! / And gie’s a hand o’ thine!”) and has become a ritual to round off a convivial evening, a prelude to farewells and a promise that we will do this again sometime.

Of course it is usually only the first and last verses of Burns’s song that are sung, with the chorus repeated after each. The verse with the gowans (or dasies), the third of five, is rarely aired to perplex contemporary Micawbers; the second is also best omitted, since it encourages listeners, not to go home, but back to the bar:

And surely ye’ll be your pint stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

This verse points to a curious fact about this paradigmatic song of parting, that its full lyric actually presents a song of reunion. There was, in Burns’s own time, a traditional Scottish song of farewell, but it was not this one. It was called ‘Goodnight and joy be with you a,’’ and Burns instructed James Johnson to include it as last song in their collaborative collection, The Scots Musical Museum. Burns had already set a lyric to this tune called “The Farewell,” which appeared near the end of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, the volume that shot him to fame. This was written in apparent anticipation of Burns’s emigration to Jamaica:

Tho’ I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing Fortune’s slidd’ry ba’,
With melting heart, and brimful eye,
I’ll mind you still, tho’ far awa.

This lyric, accompanied also by the traditional words, is the one used at the end of The Scots Musical Museum.

There are plenty of songs in the Scottish tradition before Burns that are set to a tune called “Auld Lang Syne” but, despite his frequent adaptations of traditional material, Burns’s song does not seem to be based on any of these. He claimed in a letter to his friend Frances Dunlop that “Auld Lang Syne” was “an old song and tune which has often thrilled thro’ my soul” however the words of “Auld Lang Syne” are almost certainly an original composition despite Burn’s claims to the contrary. The fact that he was willing to consider different tunes to accompany these words might confirm this: they first appear in the Museum set to one traditional air, but Burn’s was happy to suggest a quite different one to publisher George Thomson, and it is the latter tune which we use today. This does not suggest his usual reverence for a traditional unity of “old song and tune.”

Burns’s most obvious influence in “Auld Lang Syne” is from an original song by Alan Ramsay, “The Kind Reception” which first appears in a collection of Scots Songs published in Edinburgh in 1718:

Should auld Acquaintance be forgot,
tho’ they return with Scars,
These are the noble HEROE’s lot,
Obtain’d in Glorious Wars. […]

Ramsay’s song is, like Burns’s, a dramatization of reunion: it consists of four verses in the voice of a woman welcoming back her lover from foreign battlefields.

Why did “Auld Lang Syne” come to supplant “Goodnight and joy be with you a’” as the traditional Scottish song of parting, then? Perhaps the answer lies in the differing nature of the absences that they imagine. The speaker of “Goodnight and joy be with you a’” seems to be a criminal going into exile:

The night is my departing night,
The morn’s the day I maun awa:
There’s no a friend or fae o’ mine
But wishes that I were awa.—
What I hae done, for lake o’ wit,
I never, never can reca’:
I trust ye’re a’ my friends as yet,
Gude night and joy be wi’ you a’!

When Walter Scott included a version of this song in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border under the title “Armstrong’s Goodnight” he ascribed it to one of that notorious border family on the eve of his execution for murder: in the context of The Scots Musical Museum it is more likely to evoke a Jacobite rebel fleeing arrest after Culloden. But political exile in France, like fighting in foreign service in Flanders, was a game for the gentry. “Auld Lang Syne” imagines the end of a more distant absence: “But seas between us braid hae roar’d / Sin auld lang syne.” This song was written and published at the beginning of an age of mass emigration from Scotland. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people journeyed to America, Australia and New Zealand, in pursuit of “Fortune’s slidd’ry ba.'” Many of them must have taken this song with them, in their luggage and their memories: a song of parting to be shared with new friends and neighbours, but which imagines a reunion with those left behind in the old country, a reunion most of its singers were destined to experience in no other way.

Featured image: Scotland, CC0 via Pixabay

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