Old times, especially times fondly remembered.
Will you be singing Auld Lang Syne tonight? Perhaps lifting a tankard of ale or glass of champagne in honor of 2020? Honoring the past and old friends?
How did this old song — written, it is said, in 1788 — with its Olde English title become THE New Year’s Eve song?
As a child of the 1950s, New Year’s Eve always meant without watching Guy Lombardo and his band play Auld Lang Syne at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. I can hear it now, even as I write.
The “big band” billed itself as “the sweetest music this side of heaven.” Indeed, I’d recognize that sound anywhere. Louis Armstrong said Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians was his favorite band to play with.
On New Year’s Eve, the live broadcast would cut back and forth between the Waldorf Astoria and Times Square, where thousands of revelers waited for the infamous ball to drop at the stroke of 12 a.m.
By that time my siblings and I would be in our pajamas, sitting on the floor in front of the black-and-white TV, ready to be hustled off to bed a few minutes into the new year. (Back then, a “big screen” was about 21 inches, but the size of the screen and its lack of color did not diminish our experience a bit.)
In those early days following the birth of mass media, Lombardo’s annual show ran from 1959 to 1976. Through the power of television, Lombardo became known as Mr. New Year’s Eve, and Auld Lang Syne, an 18-century Scottish song, became the song to sing at midnight.
The actual full song is pretty long. And, like a many-stanza’d church hymn, most of us would get pretty bored were we to sing the whole thing. So, like the friends gathered in the last scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we typically sing only the first verse and chorus.
That first line, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind?” is a rhetorical question of whether you should forget about your old friends. Well, of course not. It’s recommended that we reminisce about fond memories of old times.
Then comes the chorus:
“We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet” refers to raising a glass, while “and surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp / and surely I’ll be mine” is another drinking line that means, “And surely you’ll have your pint tankard / And surely I’ll have mine.”
While sipping champagne is a lovely tribute, one can see that this song is properly done while swinging and swigging said tankard.
The rest of the song goes back and forth between themes of friendship, memories and getting drunk. Not unlike what happens whenever friends gather to drink, particularly beverages in the beer, ale and stout family.
“Burns writes about running ‘about the braes,’ which are hills, and ‘pu’d the gowans fine,’ which means ‘pulled the daisies fine.’ The lyrics, ‘paidl’d i’ the burn / Frae mornin’ sun till dine / But seas between us braid hae roar’d,’ mean that the singer has paddled in the stream from the morning until dinner, but the broad seas have roared between us. This is a reference to friends that were once close but now are far.
Finally, in modern English:
“And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give us a hand of yours!
And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will
For long, long ago.”
Perhaps, as COVID dies away with its last mild variant and leaves us to live once again in full health and freedom, we can drink to that.
As in old Scotland so it is three centuries later. After acknowledging the past in such a way, it is traditional to then forget it by drinking one’s self into oblivion.