2012 Should auld acquaintance (and sources) be forgot

Lời Việt: Chân Phương và Nguyễn Trọng Khôi
Tiếng hát: Nguyễn Trọng Khôi

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

Should auld acquaintance (and sources) be forgot

We might know the words to this popular New Year’s Eve anthem but do we know their origin, asks Claire Prentice.

AS THE clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, one song ushered in 2012 in time zones around the world: Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. Even in Burns’ native Scotland, many people do not understand all the words, but that has done nothing to diminish the song’s appeal.

Although it is most often associated with the new year, Auld Lang Syne is a global anthem of remembrance and fraternity. Type the title into YouTube and more than 32,000 versions come up, sung by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Alvin and the Chipmunks. The song is sung throughout the English-speaking world and has been translated into more than 40 languages.

”It has travelled and embedded itself in cultures across the globe,” says Burns biographer, Robert Crawford. ”It’s a malleable song; it’s quite unspecific about the nature of friendship, so it lends itself to many different occasions.”

Its title translates as ”old long since”, ”for old time’s sake”. On that point, there is consensus. But more than two centuries after Burns’ death, opinion is divided on the source of the song. The poet and author denied Auld Lang Syne was his. Rather, he said: ”I took it down from an old man.”

Burns was deeply connected with rural life. He travelled the country, collecting traditional songs for posterity. He also enjoyed remaking the songs, or ”mending” them, as he called it. ”Burns denied he wrote it [Auld Lang Syne] because he didn’t,” says literary historian Murray Pittock. ”He edited it, though how much we don’t know.”

Most experts think Auld Lang Syne was created by Burns in 1788 using a variety of source materials. These could date as far back as the 16th century and include works by the Scottish poets Allan Ramsay, Robert Aytoun and James Watson. ”It’s impossible to say how many texts and tunes Auld Lang Syne is derived from,” Professor Pittock says.

Describing the effect Auld Lang Syne had on him, Burns wrote in a letter to his friend Frances Dunlop in 1788 that it ”thrilled thro’ my soul”.

Like its lyrics, the tune of Auld Lang Syne has a convoluted history. The version commonly sung today is not the tune Burns set it to but the suggestion of his publisher, George Thomson.

Gerard Carruthers, co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies in Glasgow, says Burns would have approved of this mix-and-match approach – ”Burns was not a purist.”

Although the poet was a proud man of the people, his popularity in North America owes a lot to New York’s most privileged citizens, according to Dr Carruthers, who is researching the connection for a book. ”Burns became very popular and very collectable in New York high society in the 1880s through to the time of the Great Depression,” he says. ”You had these dances and people gathering in Times Square to welcome in the new year that were attended by people like William Randolph Hearst and Henry Ford. They were the people collecting Burns’ manuscripts because they realised what a good investment they were. The American industrialists were into Burns because they saw him as a self-made man.”

The full story of the most-performed song in the world after Happy Birthday may never be known, but one thing is certain: If Burns was alive today, the profits from Auld Lang Syne would have made him a billionaire many times over.

WASHINGTON POST

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