When it comes to songs that document our transition to the New Year, “Auld Lang Syne” definitely takes the cake. Written in 1788 by Robert Burns, the oft-sung tune is set to a traditional Scottish folk melody and stems from Burns’ experience learning the song from an old man. Since then, the song has become a timeless classic in the English-speaking world. Every year it is sung, but not totally understood, by party goers across the world.
Described as being equivalent to the phrase “once upon a time,” or “days gone by,” “Auld Lang Syne” suggests that we should pay homage to days gone by, ones that seem in the distant past yet still are cherished for those who celebrate today. The fact that over the years the song has come to signify the New Year comes as no surprise. The New Year is a time to remember our friendships and connections that are receding into the past, yet still retain their strong importance for us. Singing “Auld Lang Syne” is our society’s sacred way of paying homage to those people who have meant so much to us.
Since its writing over 200 years ago, “Auld Lang Syne” has become such a well known song that it has been recorded innumerable times over the years. Famous recordings of the song have been done by such various artists as James Taylor and Julie Andrews. It’s been sung in almost every imaginable style. You can find orchestral versions and recordings of large choruses singing it, or even go back and listen to traditional Scottish versions of the old song.
The song has also been heavily used in film. The unforgettable ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the classic Christmas film with Jimmy Stewart, features a crowd of people locked into a raucous rendition of the song. In the end of “When Harry Met Sally,” the film’s romantic climax occurs just as “Auld Lang Syne” is being sung by the party crowd around the central characters. Harry and Sally talk about the song when Harry asks “What does this song mean? All my life, I don’t know what this song means.” In the end Sally says “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”
The pair are talking about the question posed by the song’s first verse: “Should old acquaintance be forgot? / And never brought to mind?” Just like Harry, I wonder what it means. Should we let go of the past, not holding on to people from the past? Or should we pay homage to their distant memory by singing a song for them?
A little bit of both is probably the answer. We simultaneously have to remember and let go at the same time, as we pay our respects to those who have meant the world to us.
One of my favorite versions was done in the last few years by the band Lord Huron, who steeped the song in atmosphere and tropical rhythm as they played around with the verses. You can listen to that version at the top of this article.
Also, check out the James Taylor version below. It’s about as wholesome and easy listening as you’d expect from the artist.