“Auld Lang Syne” Banned

Robert Burns (1759 – 1796), from “The Poetry of Burns,” 1896

Though “the ball” has already dropped, it may not be too late, perhaps, to discuss one of our favorite New Year’s Eve traditions. I refer to the annual singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” While this song rarely fails to stir emotions, it probably leaves more than a few of us befuddled with its cryptic lyrics and somewhat random attachment to New Year’s. It’s had a long road, this song…a history which includes being banned during the American Civil War.

The famed Scottish poet, Robert Burns (a fellow with whom I am admittedly only vaguely familiar) can be credited (or blamed) for the lyrics. In 1788, just before publishing the song in the Scots Musical Museum, an Edinburgh publication dedicated to printing traditional Scottish music and poetry, Burns sent a draft to a friend. “The following song,” Burns wrote, “an old song of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man’s singing, is enough to recommend any air.”

Burns was fibbing. Although the melody had been kicking around Scotland for centuries, set to different words, the new lyrics came not from an old man but from Burns himself.

We generally only sing part of it now. Modern day readers would likely be puzzled by the original full lyrics:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min’!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne ?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, etc.

We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn,”
Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, etc.

And here’s a hand, my trusty fier,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we ‘ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, etc.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
As sure as I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, etc.

I had to look up what such things as a “guid-willie waught” are. I won’t go into a detailed translation as this can be found elsewhere. But, suffice it to say, Burns enjoyed writing in a Scottish dialect…one that he feared was fast disappearing and wanted to preserve. This is one of the primary reasons why he was (and is) so beloved in Scotland and beyond. At the same time, you can almost detect a bit of tongue in cheek on Burns’s part. He had a sense of humor and was not above self-deprecation. I tend to think he enjoyed the idea of pulling at people’s heart-strings while simultaneously confusing the hell out of them.

It reminds me of Alice’s reading of “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking Glass, a nonsensical poem which has the same sort of Scottish rhythms (Carroll, one hundred years later, poking fun at Burns, perhaps?). As Alice said, “It seems very pretty…but it’s rather hard to understand!…Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas…only I don’t exactly know what they are!” How many of us feel the same way on New Year’s Eve?

The song used to be more familiar to people on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century when such “parting songs” were popular. I find it a little sad that the whole tradition of the parting song has almost completely vanished in the United States. I was introduced to the tradition in Ireland by a relative who informed the gathering that no one could leave until a song had been sung. He then proceeded to sing one…not very well…but it still brought a tear to the eye.

There are many of these parting songs…”The Parting Glass” being a well-known Irish favorite. And they are still being written in some places…I challenge anyone to listen to “Here’s to Song” by Cape Breton’s Allister MacGillivray without getting choked up. Certainly, though, “Auld Lang Syne” is the most famous of the parting songs and was virtually an immediate hit. It was sung whenever friends and family gathered.

“Auld Lang Syne” was especially popular during the Civil War. So many regimental histories mention bands playing this song, or soldiers singing it in camp. Along with “Home Sweet Home,” it was one of those tunes that reminded the soldiers of hearth, family, and all those they had left behind.

It reminded them so acutely of home, in fact, that in December 1862 the song was forbidden in Union camps. The Army of the Potomac had just suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 and morale was so low that officers resorted to desperate measures to curtail desertions. Plaintive songs such as “Home Sweet Home,” and “Auld Lang Syne” were deemed likely to incite desertion and were banned.

What with the song being forbidden, it must have been an incredibly poignant moment on April 9, 1865 when both armies stopped shooting at each other and General Ulysses Grant rode for Appomattox Court House. There General Robert E. Lee waited to sign terms of surrender. As Grant departed his camp with his staff, a band struck up “Auld Lang Syne.” I doubt there was ever a rendition of the song more fraught with meaning.

The song remained popular at reunions and such gatherings well into the 20th century. But somehow, with the death of 19th century sentimentality, the song seemed trite to the modern ear and was gradually relegated to New Year’s Eve when such nostalgia might be tolerated. Dusted off only once a year, the song lacks the familiarity it once had across the English-speaking world. Its present-day status was, I think, best summed in the scene from When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan:

Harry: What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot.’ Does that mean we that should forget old acquaintances or does it mean that if we should happen to forget them, we should remember them which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well maybe it just means that maybe we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.

And in that she is spot on. Doesn’t really matter what it means to “pu’d the gowans fine.” What Burns wanted, more than two centuries ago, was for us to remember old friends.

Here’s to old friends and times gone by! Happy New Year!

[Sources: Robert Burns and Allan Cunningham, The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, (1876), p. 541; Francis A. Lord, They Fought for the Union (1960), p. 224; Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, (1953), p. 380.]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

9 responses to ““Auld Lang Syne” Banned

  • Carole

    I learned something new about this song, thank you for that. And When Harry Met Sally is my favorite movie. A description of this song wouldn’t be complete without quoting that scene!

  • Jessie Richter

    gram told me when i was a kid that a willie-waught was a pint of beer…

  • Dale

    I’ve been planning on reading your blog for some time, so now I begin, with the new year.

    Having sung Auld Lang Syne with my band on many a New Year I can honestly say I’ve never known the words, but I’ve never let that interfere! The funny part is the audience joins in and they don’t know the words either.
    It just proves that you can’t keep a good song down.

  • Andrea

    Adam and I were just talking about this the other day. (Although we were simply attempting to remember the words, not really trying to discern any meaning in them.) And I love the “Alice” reference, just because. 🙂

  • Deirdre

    I never knew what this song was called but had to learn it today. My husband bought a small keyboard for our 19 month old son and he bursts into tears whenever he hears this song. It’s really weird. Now I know what the song that causes my baby to cry is though. lol

  • Deirdre

    I forgot to mention the keyboard has Auld Lang Syne as one of its presets.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Mr. Browne,

    I would have e-mailed you personally but I don’t see a link or space to do so?

    I was wondering what historical society you are the director (?) of.

    I lecture frequently on American history in song — especially in (Greater) New York City and throughout New York State. I was pleased to come on your blog (and learned something in re “Auld Lang Syne” and the Civil War) and wondered whether there might be other worthwhile occasions to be in touch.

    Thanks, in any case, for the blog.

    — Robert Cohen, music@sterlingmp.org
    http://www.rlcwordsandmusic.net/music/american-music-lectures — but not yet up is my series of talks on THE BALLAD OF AMERICA: THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES IN SONG.

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