Behind the Song Lyrics: “Auld Lang Syne,” Popularized by Robert Burns, Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark and More

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Guy Lombardo Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

So far as folk standards go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a song with the same stature and staying power as the Scottish traditional, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Known in America as the definitive song for New Year’s Eve, it’s actually popular all around the world in a variety of contexts—from Dutch soccer songs to Japanese graduation songs to an older version of the Korean national anthem. Yet, most folks—even in the English-speaking world—probably feel pretty similar to Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally, who said: “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means.”

To find the answer to that question, we’ll go back to the first major documentation of the song: Robert Burns’ 1793 letter to his friend George Thomson. Seeking to document this slice of Scottish culture, he wrote down the lyrics of the tune and described it as 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.”

Combining English words with words from the Scots language—something Burns was particularly fond of—the tune served as a personification of Scottish heritage in an era marked by the encroachment of English culture. Thus, we sing the words “auld lang syne” in place of their literal English translation, “old long since,” which would more accurately translate to “for the sake of old times.”

To that end, the song is, in short, an ode to the old times and a hopeful look to more good times ahead. Whether sung to mark the end of an era or merely sung at the end of a good night of drinking, its message is as simple as it is powerful: remember the good times, and here’s hoping for more.

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

So, that essentially answers Billy Crystal’s question… but how did it become known as the New Year’s Eve song? To answer that, we’ll take a little trip to 1929 to listen to Guy Lombardo’s New Year’s Eve broadcast, in which he and his band, the Royal Canadians, performed a rendition of the tune as the clock struck midnight. Liking the sentiment, Lombardo decided to make it a tradition—so, countless households, year after year, listened to “Auld Lang Syne” as they said goodbye to the past year and hello to the new one. Lombardo continued the tradition until he died in 1977.

And picking up the mantle, Dick Clark opted to use it as his midnight song when he started broadcasting his New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in the early ’70s—when Ryan Seacrest took over that broadcast in the early 2000s, he, of course, continued the tradition.

So, to this day, thanks to the efforts of Robert Burns, Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest, and countless generations of Scots, music lovers, and party-goers, the song remains a treasured tradition for millions around the world. And when you raise your glass this year to the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, now you can know just how many folks through the annals of history stand with you—for auld lang syne!

Listen to the Guy Lombardo version of the treasured traditional tune “Auld Lang Syne” below:

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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