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Forum Home > ROBERT BURNS NEWSPAPER ARTICLES > Robert Burns: Something Auld - The Scotsman

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By Jim Gilchrist EXTRATERRESTRIALanthropologists, should there be such entities, observing us from veryfar away, must be particularly exercised around this time of year asthey record global outbreaks of a very specific kind of mass hysteria,in which large groups of alcohol-tranced strangers link hands and jerkrhythmically in a kind of crazed seance while mouthing words about"auld acquaintance" – with which, however, many of the singers seemsingularly unacquainted.

• Picture: Complimentary


Yes,tomorrow night the year's end will once again see revellers the worldover making linguistic mincemeat of Auld Lang Syne. Seldom can ananthem of international fraternity have been so mangled by so many, butas an Art Works Scotland documentary on BBC Two Scotland will point outtomorrow night, while many know that it was written by our erstwhileHomecoming hero, Robert Burns, few – even in Scotland – know all thewords, fewer still know what they mean, and gey few know the song'shistory, which goes back centuries before it was knocked into the shapewe know now by the Lad from Kyle.


The film, made by SkylineProductions, intersperses interviews with Burns scholars and singers,as well as performance extracts from such diverse interpreters as EddiReader, the Proclaimers and Moby, with documenting the run-up to anattempt to assemble the largest number of people singing Auld Lang Syneduring last year's Edinburgh's Hogmanay festivities.


ActorLibby McCarthur voices her opinion that "Burns was a genius. He knewwhat touched people in their hearts and their minds and their souls",while musician and composer Phil Cunningham, who has played in morethan his fair share of TV Hogmanay shows, comments: "You can see it inthe faces and smiles – and the tears – of people as they sing it."Roddy Woomble, Idlewild singer and more recently folk-crossoveradventurer, regards the song as something lodged in his subconscioussince childhood.


Meanwhile, academic Alan Riach, Professor ofScottish Literature at Glasgow University, suggests that while the veryphrase "auld lang syne" may be incomprehensible to many of those whoattempt to sing it at this time of year, it is not a term which renderseasily into English. "Old long since," to make a rigidly literaltranslation, sounds nonsensical, but "auld lang syne" has a ring to itand a very specific meaning in Scots, redolent of times gone by andfond nostalgia.


As Riach says: "There are no abstractions. Everything is precise, vivid, and that's a keynote of Burns's writing. "


Notthat Burns came up with a brand new number. Noted as much for his songcollecting and his ability to develop older fragments as for hispoetry, Burns was inspired by the song's numerous antecedents. As hewrote to his friend, Mrs Dunlop, in 1788: "Apropos, is not the Scotsphrase, 'Auld lang syne,' exceedingly expressive? There is an old song& tune which has often thrilled thro' my soul. You know I am anenthusiast in old Scots songs … Light be the turf on the breast of theheaven-inspired Poet who composed this glorious Fragment! There is moreof the fire of native genius in it, than in half a dozen of modernEnglish Bacchanalians."


As tomorrow's documentary explains,songs in the style of Auld Lang Syne go back as far as the mid-16thcentury. The National Library of Scotland's Nat Edwards reveals ananonymous ballad printed in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568 titledAuld Kyndnes Foryett, while a 1701 broadside declares: "Assure thyselfof welcome Love,/For Old lang sine ..."


Allan Ramsay publishedwhat Edwards describes as "a rather wet" version in 1720, but it wasn'tuntil 1788 that Burns, allegedly sitting on the Banks of the Nith,penned his own version, uniquely fusing homely sentiments with a morerobust, convivial and fraternal sensibility. He said that three of theverses were old, the other two by himself.


Fast forward to the21st century and, while Burns's pithy Scots remains generallyaccessible, for some reason, the term "a richt guid willie-waught"appears to cause global perplexity, second only, perhaps, to that otherfamous Burnsian puzzler, "a damen icker in a thrave" from To A Mouse.Yet the aforesaid willie-waucht is simply a good drink. As commentatorspoint out, it is the moment when the gentler-sounding "cup of kindness"which figures earlier in the song becomes the kind of quaffing thatseals a more masculine bond of friendship (and, OK, that "damen ickerin a thrave," according to my battered Burns edition, is an odd ear in24 sheaves – a "thrave" – of corn).


Then there are those –including many who you'd think would know better – who bludgeon thetitle by substituting a "z" for the "s" in "syne", lending the Bard'sguid braid Scots a faintly engaging, if utterly inappropriate, Dorsetburr – Burns hijacked by Thomas Hardy.


As Thomas Crawfordwrote in his important critical examination, Burns: A Study of thePoems and Songs: "In Auld Lang Syne, Burns brings together twodifferent types of nostalgia for past shared happiness, and makes ofthem a single, compound emotion. Thus our feelings develop as we singit, until by the end of the song we seem to experience a distillationof all the mutual loyalty, all the partnerships between individualsthat have existed since the world began."


It is thesesentiments which have made Burns's concoction so enduring andinternationally popular. The programme features a Japanese song, withsingularly unBurnsian lyrics about "Light of the firely/And the snowbeside the window", set to the familiar tune, while the Scots domiciledBengali poet Bashabi Fraser sings an Indian version. And Alan Riachrecalls on the programme how his father, a mariner, was once asked forthe words of Auld Lang Syne by a Communist Chinese sea captain.


Thenthere is the matter of the tune to which it is most widely sung notbeing Burns's original choice. As the documentary points out, GeorgeThompson, who first published the song three years after Burns's death,not only altered some of the lyrics but set it to a similarly metredbut more up-beat-sounding melody in the pentatonic scale, compared withthe more delicate tune Burns favoured.


The original, with itswinsome rise and fall, has been increasingly sung in recent years byfolk artists – the first usage of it I can recall was Jean Redpathsinging it back in the 1980s as part of her collaboration with the lateSerge Hovey, the extraordinary American composer and arranger who setBurns's vast song canon to sometimes idiosyncratic "contemporaryclassical" arrangements.


What the ArtWorks documentary doesn'tmention, oddly enough, is that the strains of that original tune ofAuld Lang Syne played an unexpected part in a Hollywood box-office hittwo years ago, when the movie version of the Sex and the City TV seriesfeatured the entire song during a key sequence. It was sung by theEdinburgh-based folk duo The Cast, aka singer and fiddler MairiCampbell and guitarist Dave Francis, (the film's scorers added discreetstrings), having been taken from their debut album, The Winnowing, madeback in 1993.


Auld Lang Syne has had a long-runningsignificance for the couple. Its appearance in Sex and the City almostcertainly stems back to a 1999 Kennedy Centre Honours concert inWashington, for which the then unknown pair were wheeched across theAtlantic to sing it to Sir Sean Connery. Involved in producing thatshow was Matthew Broderick, later to marry Sarah Jessica Parker, who,Campbell and Francis reckoned, was probably in the audience. WhenParker went on to act in and produce the Sex and the City movie, thesong resurfaced, rather to the Edinburgh duo's astonishment.


Whileit didn't quite elevate the pair into the ranks of A, B or C-listcelebrity, it has been helpful, says Campbell. "On the other hand(celebrity] is not really what we choose to do. We were playing againfor dancing the following week," she adds.


It may not be thetune millions will be hollering tomorrow night, but, she agrees, theoriginal melody has an appeal of its own. "On an emotional level, ittakes you to a different place. It has tiny musical phrases thattotally shift its feeling. Then when you read the text, that tune justworks beautifully with it. It's a little gem".


• ArtWorks Scotland: Auld Lang Syne is on BBC2 Scotland tomorrow night at 6:25pm


Sir Robert Ayton, 1711


THEREare records of folk songs bearing similarities to Auld Lang Synecirculating as early as the 16th century, and Burns wasn't the onlypoet to try incorporating them into his own work:


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,


And never thought upon,


The flames of love extinguished,


And freely past and gone?


Is thy kind heart now grown so cold


In that loving breast of thine,


That thou canst never once reflect


On old-long-syne?


Allan Ramsay, 1720


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,


Tho' they return with scars?


These are the noble hero's lot,


Obtain'd in glorious wars:


Welcome, my Varo, to my breast,


Thy arms about me twine.


And make me once again as blest,


As I was lang syne


Robert Burns, 1788


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,


And never brought to mind?


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,


And auld lang syne!


For auld lang syne, my jo,


For auld lang syne,


We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet


For auld lang syne



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