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Scots Soundtrack to New Year Everywhere!

It's New Year's Eve and the bells have just struck midnight. From Bombay to Baltimore, Moscow to Madrid and Sydney to Swindon, what is everyone singing? No question about it, with the possible exception of 'Happy Birthday', 'Auld Lang Syne' is the most popular song in the world!

While most country's national songs are unique to their own cultures, and are specifically patriotic, 'Auld Lang Syne' is unique in that, although it is universally recognised and many know it as Scottish, it embraces the whole of humanity; people in every corner of the earth almost know it better than the Scots themselves! However, the words and the music of the song as we know it today, have developed over the years and the story of its evolution is fascinating.

The earliest known version of 'Auld Lang Syne' was a 15th century poem called 'Auld kindnes Foryett' the story of a man in impoverished circumstances, who is reflecting on the ingratitude of those who claimed to be his friends in better days. Then in 1711, in Watson's collection of Scottish verse, a poem appeared called 'Old Longsyne' Attributed to an unknown writer, it consists of twelve stanzas of eight lines, and is written throughout in English, rather than Scots. It begins "Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon?" There was also a song published by an Allan Ramsay in 1724, entitled "Auld Lang Syne," which began, "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, tho' they return with scars?"

The first record of the song in the version that we know it today is mentioned in Robert Burns' letter to his friend Mrs Dunlop, dated December 17, 1788. Burns enclosed a copy of the verse; saying, 'Here is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul' Burns claimed to have taken it down 'from an old man's singing' Five years later he sent a copy of the song, with new verses composed by himself, to George Thomson, who was compiling a collection of Scottish songs with music. A few years after Burns' death, in 1799, his version of Auld Lang Syne was published in Thomson's 'Songs of Scotland' appearing for the first time with the melody to which it is sung today.

The huge appeal of Auld Lang Syne continues today, indeed Burns' song has spread to almost every corner of the globe and is used for very different purposes. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, for instance, it is a well-known funeral song whereas, in the Philippines, it is played at university graduation ceremonies. In Japan and Hungary, Auld Lang Syne is often played at the end of the business day to tell customers that a store or restaurant is closing, while in Italy and Holland it is used with different words of course as a football supporter's anthem. The song's huge popularity in America is often ascribed to bandleader Guy Lombardo's use of Auld Lang Syne to end his New Year's Eve radio broadcasts in the 1920's. However, there are newspaper reports from the likes of the New York Times which report people singing the song on New Year's Eve and which date back to the 1890's!

India and Pakistan reserve use of the song for their military passing out parades. Indeed, recently, it was to the strains of Auld Lang Syne that the Pakistani President, finally resigned as army chief in a ceremony in Rawalpindi. It's probably safe to say that a military resignation was probably not one of the uses Burns imagined when he wrote the immortal words over two hundred years ago!

But Scotland's music is not confined to Auld Lang Syne, although in terms of sentiment and musicality the song fits firmly into a Celtic tradition. This, and Scotland's other musical history, is analysed by Scottish musicologist John Purser in his recent book 'Scotland's Music'. This traces the country's entire musical history, from the discovery of bone flutes on Orkney dating from 2300BC, to contemporary artists like Franz Ferdinand and the Delgados.

Purser also sheds light on lesser-known Scottish musical talents, like the pianist Helen Hopekirk and Edinburgh-born composer Cecil Coles, who wrote his music in the trenches of France and who was tragically killed in the final weeks of the First World War. His music only recently came to light when it was discovered by his daughter who was living in Kirkintilloch, completely unaware of her father's work.

Another great Scottish musical legend was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2007, held in Fort William, an honour only awarded to musicians who have been in the industry for over 30 years and who have 'altered Scotland's musical landscape for the better'.

Sheila Stewart's citation described her as "a national treasure, the last in a long line of a rich oral tradition and a singer of unsurpassed character, passion and power".

Seventy-two-year-old Sheila grew up in a family of travelling people whose roots in Scotland have been traced back to the 11th century and whose music and song gained worldwide renown during the folk music revival. While other children were out playing, Sheila would be sat on her uncle's knee learning another song. This paid off handsomely when, at regular family ceilidhs, Uncle Donald would ask Sheila to sing song after song in return for a ten-shilling note quite a sum in the 1940s!

Sheila later sang with the family concert party, eventually becoming a folk club, festival and concert attraction on both sides of the Atlantic and she went on to sing in the White House for then-President Gerald Ford during America's bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Her undoubted career-highlight arrived in 1982, when she appeared before her biggest audience ever: singing in front of 300,000 in Bellahouston Park as part of Pope John Paul II's visit to Scotland. Last year, Sheila was awarded an MBE for services to the oral tradition of Scotland's folk music and for travelling people.

And a quick look at the pop charts tells you that today Scottish music has never been healthier: Amy Macdonald, Sandie Thom, KT Tunstall, Travis, Franz Ferdinand . . . the list of Scottish artists who are filling stadiums and selling records in their millions is long and distinguished. (And it's not just Scottish rock groups either American cult band The White Stripes recently used the bagpipes on "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn", a joyous Hibernian romp on their best-selling album 'Icky Thump'.)

What the music of nearly all those artists has in common with Auld Lang Syne a tune dating back over half a millennium is warmth and humanity, an embrace of life and people that is distinctively Scottish. It's really no surprise then that when the whole world wants to celebrate the passing of the old and the coming of the new, it's the Scot's who provide the soundtrack. (Just click on the first link below to make sure you get the words right this year!)

Auld Lang Syne

Burns Original

Standard English Translation

Auld Lang Syne

And for auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne,
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o' auld lang syne.
And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp!
And surely I'll be mine!
And 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.
We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.
And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak a right guid willy waught,
For auld lang syne.

Old Long Past

And for old long past, my joy (sweetheart),
For old long past,
We will take a cup of kindness yet,
For old long past,

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And days of old long past.

And surely you will pay for your pint-vessel!
And surely I will pay for mine!
And we will take a cup of kindness yet,
For old long past.

We two have run about the hillsides
And pulled the wild daisies fine;
But we have wandered many a weary foot
Since old long past.

We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till noon;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since old long past.

And there is a hand, my trusty friend!
And give me a hand of yours!
And we will take a right good-will drink,
For old long past.



-- Edited by Rabbie Downunder at 15:05, 2008-01-02


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