2016-12-30 / On Second Thought

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What is the origin of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” as sung on New Year’s Eve?
Compiled by Warren Hughes

The song from a 1788 Scots poem by Robert Burns means “for the sake of old times.” Set to the tune of a traditional folk song, the lyrics were sent by Burns to the Scots Musical Museum with the note, “The following song… has never been in print until I took it down from an old man.”

Some of the lyrics were indeed collected rather than composed by the poet. The ballad “Old Long Syne” printed in 1711 by James Watson is similar and is thought to be derived from the same old ballad, according to the British online publication, The Independent. The phrase “Auld Lang Syne” is also found in other similar poems and folk songs.

Singing the song on Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve became a Scots custom that soon spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots, English, Welsh, and Irish people emigrated around the world, they took the song with them. A manuscript of “Auld Lang Syne” is held in the permanent collection of The Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington. The original full lyrics are as follows:

“Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon;

The flames of love extinguished, and fully past and gone:

Is thy sweet heart now grown so cold, that loving breast of thine;

That thou canst never once reflect

On old long syne.

CHORUS:

On old long syne my Jo,

On old long syne,

That thou canst never once reflect,

On old long syne.”

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