The Song Remains the Same

"Auld Lang Syne" may be the most famous song that no one knows the words to -- especially after four or five glasses of champagne.

Not many people know where the song came from, either.

The words "Should auld acquaintance be forgot" can be traced back to an anonymous 1568 ballad, "Auld Kyndness Foryett." An updated version, first published in 1711, was probably written by courtly poet Sir Robert Ayton; versions continued to appear through the mid-eighteenth century. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, "auld lang syne" means times gone past, or the good old days (auld = old, lang = long, syne = since).

While Scottish poet Robert Burns ultimately got the credit for creating this New Year's anthem, even he admitted it wasn't original to him.

In 1793, explaining the inspiration for his take on the ballad, Burns wrote that it was an "old song of olden times...which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man's singing."

In the process, he created a song that celebrates old memories and social fellowship -- all in the purest folk idiom. Expressing his appreciation for the old lyrics, Burns asked that "light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired Poet who composed this glorious Fragment," according to Smithsonian Magazine online.

Burns's use of dialect brought a much-needed freshness and raciness to English poetry, but his greatness extends beyond that. Although his poems were written about Scotland, they apply to a multitude of universal problems and reflect his humanitarian leanings. The son of a hardworking and intelligent farmer, Burns was the oldest of seven children, all of whom had to help on the farm. Although always hard-pressed financially, the elder Burns encouraged his boys to pursue an education. As a result, the young Robert Burns read not only the Scottish poetry of Ramsay and collections compiled by Hailes and Herd, but also the works of Pope, Locke and Shakespeare. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia online, by 1781 he'd tried his hand at several agricultural jobs without success and decided to dedicate himself to poetry instead.

Still, none of his works were published until 1786 -- and "Auld Lang Syne" remains the most famous, if not the most original to Burns.

To be most true to tradition, just before singing the song, you should sip some Scotch whiskey with a wee bit of water, savored like a fine brandy. And then, as the singing starts, you and your fellow revelers must stand in a circle holding hands. At the beginning of the fourth verse ("And here's a hand, my trusty friend"), the proper custom is for everybody to cross their arms in front and shake hands with their neighbors in the circle -- your right hand shaking the left hand of the person standing to your left, your left hand shaking the right hand of the person to your right. It's quite cozy -- but then, Burns was the poet of love and friendship.

Forget "Louie, Louie." You'll be the life of the New Year's party when you sing the real words to "Auld Lang Syne," reproduced below.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,

we'll take a cup of kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and days of auld lang syne?

And here's a hand, my trusty friend

And gie's a hand o' thine

We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anita Trafford