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In the closing scene of the 1989 romcom When Harry Met Sally, the titular friends-turned-lovers have kissed at a new year party. “Auld Lang Syne” is playing. Harry (Billy Crystal) is struck by a thought.
“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 should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happen to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?”
Sally, played by Meg Ryan, responds: “Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.” Sally has hit the nail on the head: the title of this sentimental air translates from lowland Scots as “old long since”, and it’s about reunions as much as separations. But where did it spring from?
In the latter years of his life the poet Robert Burns became an avid collector of Scottish folk songs and ballads and, having heard “Auld Lang Syne” from “an old man” in 1788, he transcribed and embellished this “exceedingly expressive” lowland song.
Burns sent the lyric to two publishers. The first was James Johnson, who included it in a collection called The Scots Musical Museum (1796); in this version, it was set to an old Scottish melody that Burns himself did not much care for. The second was George Thomson, who published it in A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs in 1799, three years after Burns’ death. It was set to a tune known as “Sir Alexander Don’s Strathspey” (a strathspey being a type of dance), and it’s this tune that is widely sung today.
The song quickly became popular at Hogmanay gatherings, and as the Scots diaspora scattered around the globe, the song travelled with them. (In today’s parlance, it went viral.) In the 1914 Christmas truce, British and German troops emerged from their trenches to play football and sing “Auld Lang Syne”. The song has also become hugely popular in Southeast Asia. And many Japanese department stores play “Auld Lang Syne” over the PA system to signify that they are closing. International scout jamborees often close with it.
Even before the arrival of the talkies, Hollywood had cottoned on to the song’s potency, often using it to highlight unhappiness through juxtaposition. In Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent weepie The Gold Rush, revellers in a saloon bar link hands to sing “Auld Lang Syne” while Chaplin’s character mopes in his cabin. It features in the tearful climax to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment ends with Shirley MacLaine, miserable at a New Year’s party with the dreadful Mr Sheldrake, as the band play “Auld Lang Syne”, before she takes her leave and ends up playing cards with Jack Lemmon. And while it may seem sacrilege to mention 2008’s Sex and the City movie in the same paragraph as these classics, that film does feature a moving new year montage with “Auld Lang Syne” in its original melody, beautifully sung by Mairi Campbell.
As for recorded versions: it was first committed to gramophone disc in 1890 by Emile Berliner, the inventor of the medium (through the crackles he can be heard making the common mistake of pronouncing “syne” as “zyne”). Elvis, Hendrix and Springsteen have covered it.
It is perhaps best to draw a veil over the 1976 disco version by the Salsoul Orchestra, and Cliff Richard’s exquisitely awful millennium mash-up with The Lord’s Prayer as a lyric, and celebrate instead its appearance on a 2011 song called “New Year’s Eve”. This wonderfully woozy, boozy ballad twice breaks into “Auld Lang Syne”. The singer? There can surely be no voice better suited to the song’s slurring, small-hours sentimentality than that of Tom Waits.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Rex Features