The stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve usually
sounds like this: This is Auld Lang Syne, a song that represents the emotional conclusion
to another year. But it might surprise you to know, it’s also
a soccer anthem in the Netherlands. Or in Japan, it’s a traditional song about
fireflies. And the original was written centuries ago,
as a Scottish celebration song. So how did this song, that’s managed to spread
across the world, become the song we sing when the ball drops? What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song
means. A lot of people share this confusion about
Auld Lang Syne, because the lyrics are sort of hard to figure out. Let’s start with the title. Auld Lang Syne. Individually these words mean “Old Long Since”, which taken together, translate to something like “For old time’s sake.” It’s written in Scots, a language spoken by
about a million people in Scotland today. The rest of the lyrics are a mix of English
and Scots words, like “And there’s a hand, my trusty feire, And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie
waught,”. What is that? So “feire” means friend. “Tak’ a right gude-willie waught,” so, a waught
related to the word “draft,” in English, would be a good pint of beer I imagine. This song asks you to remember people from
your past and raise a toast to them, which made it a popular song to sing at New Year’s
and other celebrations. And that line about taking your friend’s hand? That’s related to a traditional dance British people still do today. The guy who popularized this song was one
of Scotland’s most famous exports: Robert Burns. Burns was a poet writing in the 1700’s, just
after Scotland and England unified to create the kingdom of Great Britain. He witnessed the decline of traditional Scottish
culture in favor of English norms. So he devoted the end of his life to preserving
this dying culture, by traveling the country to collect traditional poetry and songs to
get them published. Auld Lang Syne was one of those songs. In a 1793 letter to his music publisher George
Thomson, Burns claimed he wrote down the lyrics after hearing an old man singing it. He called Auld Lang Syne “an old song about
the olden times.” And he made sure Thomson kept the Scots words
in the song, arguing “There is a naievete, a pastoral simplicity, in a slight intermixture
of Scots words and phraseology.” And this song, Auld Lang Syne, is doing a
great job of tying in with the original idea of collecting folk songs, preserving heritage,
celebrating heritage. Auld Lang Syne was republished in countless
song books worldwide over the centuries and because of Burns, the Scots words are still
in there. And even if you don’t know the history behind
them, you can still sort of figure out what the song is saying. Anyway, it’s about old friends. Why has a song that people don’t really understand
become so widespread? For starters, the melody of Auld Lang Syne
is simple, making it easy to sing along to and easy to adapt into other musical styles. Which is why it can become a soul song, or a bluegrass song, or rock ‘n roll. And because it’s uncomplicated and melodic,
the song was easy to put with different lyrics. Like in the US in the Civil War era, it became
a song about a wish for the war to end. And it was also a popular anti-slavery ballad. It took on new meanings in languages in other
parts of the world, which is why it’s in places you might not expect, like that soccer anthem
in the Netherlands. Or a graduation song in parts of Asia. And it was South Korea’s national anthem until
1948. No matter what the language or lyrics are,
Auld Lang Syne’s popularity also has something to do with its nostalgic feeling. The song itself is often used in the popular
context in an even more overtly sad way. If you look at the words, it’s quite nostalgic
as a song and that’s its attraction. Which is why it started showing up in countless
classic movies, usually to mark an emotional scene. Like in this 1937 Shirley Temple movie, when
her character consoles a dying soldier by singing Auld Lang Syne. And the director Frank Capra used it for sentimental
moments in at least 3 of his films. But in the US, the song is best known for
one thing: “Happy New Year.” And for that, we can thank Mr. New Year’s
Eve himself, Guy Lombardo. In 1928, Lombardo and his orchestra, The Royal
Canadians, started a popular New Year’s Eve radio show, broadcast from the Roosevelt Hotel
in Manhattan. This meant that Americans all over the country
tuned in from their home radios to listen to the same music on New Year’s Eve. And at the stroke of midnight, Lombardo played
their version of Auld Lang Syne. Lombardo continued that tradition for nearly 50 years
and when Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve started on TV in 1973, he would play Auld
Lang Syne at midnight too. And after Clark, Ryan Seacrest did the same. So now at midnight, right after the ball drops,
this is what you hear. It’s still Lombardo’s version. And this is why, for many, the song is so
singularly associated with the nostalgia of another year past. So when this new year rolls around, even if
you don’t know all the words, sing along anyway. You won’t be alone.