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Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture

Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture M. J. Grant
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In Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture, M. J. Grant explores the history of this iconic song, demonstrating how its association with ideas of fellowship, friendship and sociality has enabled it to become so significant for such a wide range of individuals and communities around the world.

This engaging study traces different stages in the journey of Auld Lang Syne, from the precursors to the song made famous by Robert Burns to the traditions and rituals that emerged around the song in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including its use as a song of parting, and as a song of New Year. Grant’s painstaking study investigates the origins of these varied traditions, and their impact on the transmission of the song right up to the present day.

Grant uses Auld Lang Syne to explore the importance of songs and singing for group identity, arguing that it is the active practice of singing the song in group contexts that has made it so significant for so many. The book offers fascinating insights into the ways that Auld Lang Syne has been received, reused and remixed around the world, concluding with a chapter on more recent versions of the song back in Scotland.

This highly original and accessible work will be of great interest to non-expert readers as well as scholars and students of musicology, cultural and social history, social anthropology and Scottish studies. The book contains a wealth of illustrations and includes links to many more, including manuscript sources. Audio examples are included for many of the musical examples. Grant’s extensive bibliography will moreover ease future referencing of the many sources consulted.

Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture
M. J. Grant | December 2021
356 pp. | 32 colour illustrations | 7" x 10" (178 x 254 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781800640658
ISBN Hardback: 9781800640665
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781800640672
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781800640689
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781800640696
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781800640702
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0231
BIC: AVA (Theory of music and musicology), AVC (Music reviews and criticism), AVGH (Folk and traditional music), 1DBKS (Scotland), HBTB (Social and cultural history); BISAC: MUS020000 (MUSIC / History & Criticism), MUS000000 (MUSIC / General), MUS020000 (MUSIC / History & Criticism), POE005020 (POETRY / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh); OCLC Number: 1289372666.

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Introduction Download
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1. Elements of a Theory of Song Download
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2. Auld Lang Syne: Context and Genesis Download
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3. Burns’s Song Download
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4. Auld Lang Syne in the Early Nineteenth Century Download
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5. The Song of Union Download
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6. The Song of Parting Download
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7. The Folk’s Song Download
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8. The Song of New Year Download
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9. Take Leave, Brothers: The German Reception of Auld Lang Syne Download
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10. A Song Abroad Download
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11. Preliminary Conclusions: A Song and Its Culture Download
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12. Auld Acquaintance: Auld Lang Syne Comes Home Download
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Appendix 1: Eight Jacobite Songs Related to Auld Lang Syne Download
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Appendix 2: Burns’s Auld Lang Syne—The Five Versions (B1-B5) Download
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Appendix 3: Seven Parodies and Contrafacta from The Universal Songster, vols. II-III (1829, 1834)

Appendix 4: Eight Nineteenth-Century German Translations Download
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Appendix 5: Four Versions in Jčrriais Download
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List of Illustrations

Audio Examples



This introduction poses the basic question that this book attempts to answer: How did an eighteenth-century Scots song, the words of which not even most Scots fully understand, become one of the most well-known songs in the world? This book argues that to answer this question, we need to investigate the social practices that have emerged around the song, and not just its distribution through media such as print, broadcasting and recording: these practices are, in particular, its use as a song of parting, as a song of New Year, and the tradition of singing it in a circle with joined, crossed hands. The introduction also outlines the approach taken to referencing and bibliography in this book, and acknowledges the significant support the author received in researching, writing and publishing it.  

1. Elements of a Theory of Song

Are songs, as one dictionary definition suggests, a "mere trifle"? Or do they, in fact, play a highly significant role in human society? This chapter discusses the social functions of songs and singing, drawing on research into the songs folk sing, and why. In particular, it builds on Ernst Klusen’s concept of "group song”, which indicates the special bonds that emerge between social groups and "their" songs. Through continued reuse, groups songs can become one of the ties that hold these groups together. The chapter also introduces the concepts of implied significance and inherited significance to explain how songs can become associated with certain groups, practices, or rituals, including where this is not immediately clear from the basic material of the songs (such as the words or the tune). The chapter closes with a consideration of the particular challenges faced when tracing the complex history of Auld Lang Syne, and introduces further terms and abbreviations used in the book.

2. Auld Lang Syne: Context and Genesis

The song Auld Lang Syne as we know it today first appeared in print in the late eighteenth century. It is closely associated with poet and songwriter Robert Burns, whose life, work and legacy are briefly summarised here. This chapter, however, primarily traces the prehistory of the modern song, which has been traced back as far as the fifteenth century. The focus here is particularly on the period from the late seventeenth century, when various songs on the sentiments "Should auld acquaintaince be forgot” and "Auld lang syne” were in circulation. These songs were generally sung to a different tune than the most familiar tune of Auld Lang Syne: that older tune is, however, related to, but not identical with, the tune to which Burns’s version was originally set. The emergence and influence of collections of "national song” such as those in which Burns’s song first appeared are discussed alongside other aspects of the song culture of eighteenth-century Britain. The chapter situates all of these developments in the political, social and cultural context of Scotland and Britain in the eighteenth century—a time of immense change in all these areas—and concludes with a discussion of possible links between the eighteenth-century songs on "Auld lang syne” and the Jacobite movement.

3. Burns’s Song

This chapter explores the contribution made to the modern song by Robert Burns, from his first mention of it in a letter to his correspondent Frances Dunlop, to his versions of the song as published by his collaborators, the editors James Johnson and George Thomson. It discusses the differences between the five extant versions of the song in Burns’s own hand, and compares these to the earlier songs discussed in Chapter 2. It deals both with the tune to which Burns set Auld Lang Syne, and with which his version was first published in 1796, and the different tune that appeared when the song was republished by George Thomson in 1799—the most familiar tune today. The chapter offers a variety of possible explanations for why Thomson changed the tune, including through looking at his correspondence with the two composers he commissioned to arrange Auld Lang Syne, Leopold Koželuch and Ludwig van Beethoven. It discusses various theories on this new tune’s provenance, and its relationship to William Shield’s comic opera Rosina. The chapter concludes by looking at the continuing legacy, into at least the early twentieth century, of the songs that predated Burns’s version, and looks at other songs on "auld lang syne” that were contemporary with Burns’s, including one by Susannah Blamire and one variously attributed to John Skinner and Anna Brown.

4. Auld Lang Syne in the Early Nineteenth Century

This chapter looks at the early reception history of Burns’s version of the song. Initial indications of how the song became established beyond Johnson’s and Thomson’s collections come from a number of sources from the first decades of the nineteenth century, including chapbooks and arrangements of the song for voices and instruments Josef Haydn and others. Newspaper advertisements and playbills offer a further route to exploring the song, especially in performance. In particular, the chapter highlights the role played by the internationally renowned Scottish tenor John Sinclair in establishing the song, not least through the opera Rob Roy Macgregor, or, Auld Lang Syne by Isaac Pocock and John Davy, which premiered in London in 1818. The chapter concludes with a discussion of early American sources for the new song, thus demonstrating the initial stages of the song’s journey from its Scottish and British roots into the wider world.  
5. The Song of Union

The chapter explores one of the most important social contexts for the dissemination of the song—fraternal-type organisations—and also focuses on the roots of the tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne in a circle with arms crossed and hands joined. Because of the way fraternal-type organisations are structured, their use of ritual, and the social functions they perform, they can play a significant role in the transmission of songs and other social practices. Such organisations were enormously significant in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The chapter begins by discussing Freemasonry and the role of song in Masonic ritual. Burns was a Freemason, and after his death Masonic organisations played an important role in memorialising him. Moreover, Masonic ritual may be the origins for the practice of singing Auld Lang Syne with linked crossed arms, and possibly also for the singing of the song at parting. The chapter also explores the international network of Burns Clubs that began to be established in the early nineteenth century, the use of the song in the trades union movement, and the emerging tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne at commencement/graduation ceremonies in the USA. The chapter concludes by looking at some other instances of singing songs with arms crossed and hands joined, and the practical and symbolic significance of this act.   
6. The Song of Parting
Building on the previous chapter, this chapter focuses more specifically on the emerging tradition of using Auld Lang Syne as a song of parting rather than reunion. It begins by looking at other songs of parting in the Scottish tradition, before looking more closely at early evidence for Auld Lang Syne’s use in such contexts. Some of the earliest recorded incidences relate to military practices, with Auld Lang Syne being used during the ceremony at which company colours were replaced; it was also often played as troop ships were leaving harbour. This is just one example of how, by the mid-nineteenth century, Auld Lang Syne was increasingly regarded as an important British and not just Scottish patriotic song, often closely linked to God Save the King/Queen and Rule Britannia. The song’s significance in the project of Empire, and the role of imperialism in the spread of the song, is subsequently explored further. The chapter concludes by looking at further types of evidence indicating the increasing use of the song as a song of parting in both Britain and North America, culled from newspaper, literary and other sources. It concludes with a discussion of one of the first ever recordings of the song, made in 1898 when a group of Cambridge anthropologists set off for the Torres Straits.

7. The Folk’s Song

Drawing on a diverse range of references and sources, this chapter explores the further dissemination of the song, and the meanings it had, from around the mid-nineteenth century to that century’s end. It discusses the appearance of the song in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield and in the writing of Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain and others. It looks at the high number of sets of instrumental variations on the song published in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, and considers whether or not Auld Lang Syne is the solution to the riddle of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The iconography of the song is also considered, as is the way the phrase "auld lang syne” was used by artists, writers and others in this period. The chapter closes on the threshold of the information revolution, showing how Auld Lang Syne became linked with the very first demonstrations of telephone communication and sound recording.

8. The Song of New Year

In many parts of the world, but particularly in North America, Auld Lang Syne is now the quintessential song of New Year. But where did this tradition come from, and how was it established? It is often assumed that broadcast media were key here: this chapter demonstrates, however, that the singing of Auld Lang Syne at New Year was established in many quarters before this. This conclusion is reached through an analysis of primary sources, especially newspaper reports, on public New Year’s Eve traditions in Scotland, among the Scottish diaspora in London, and in the USA, in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  

9. Take Leave, Brothers: The German Reception of Auld Lang Syne

In the first of two chapters on the international and foreign-language reception of the song, this chapter uses Germany as an in-depth case-study. It begins by looking at settings of the song in the German art music tradition, including a choral setting of the text by Robert Schumann, before considering the evidence for the use of the song in other settings. The chapter demonstrates that, despite the great popularity of Burns’s poems and songs in the Romantic period and beyond, there is little evidence for the adoption of the song into German repertoires before the mid-twentieth century. This changes in the second half of twentieth century, for reasons related in part to the post-war cultural history of Germany. A significant role is played here by a further  fraternal-type organisation: the Scouts. The chapter looks at the adoption of the song and its traditional use as a song of parting in Scouting, and the impact internationally, including in Germany, of foreign-language versions of the song created primarily for this purpose. This finding thus ultimately provides further evidence for this book’s main thesis: that the song’s popularity and longevity has everything to do with the traditions and rituals with which it has become connected; active rather than passive reception is key.

10. A Song Abroad

What happens when a song "migrates”? This chapter continues to explore the complex web of associations and tangents that has emerged as the song has travelled around the world, beginning in the late nineteenth but focusing in the main on the twentieth century. It begins by looking at a song composed using the familiar tune of Auld Lang Syne by one of the most prolific Zulu composers and musicians of the twentieth century, before exploring translations and foreign-language versions of song into Danish, Japanese and Jčrriais amongst others. Quotations from and paraphrases on the song in new songs published in the earlier twentieth century are discussed, as are a number of early recordings of Auld Lang Syne itself. The chapter discusses how clocks and bells have played a role in the song’s transmission and reinterpretation, and how its use in films can be used to trace the developing associations of the song, in particular with regard to its use at the New Year. Several poignant instances of the use of the song and its elements in the First and Second World Wars are also discussed. As divergent from one another and from their source as these practices are, the chapter argues that there is a striking commonality among many of the global practices discussed here that link them back quite directly to the song’s original eighteenth-century meanings.

11. Preliminary Conclusions: A Song and its Culture

The penultimate chapter takes stock of the story this far, summarises the main findings and outlines three key factors that help explain the success not just of this song, but potentially others as well: the role of fraternal-type organisations; the role of theatre and print media; and the role of time, ritual and remembrance of things past in human social life and the obligations we bear to one another.

12. Auld Acquaintance: Auld Lang Syne Comes Home

This final chapter looks at the recent history of the song in Scotland: in particular, interpretations by Scottish musicians and singers from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Through these recordings, it discusses the active "rediscovery” around this time of the tune to which Burns originally wrote his version of the song, and the emergence of a completely new, third tune as well. This period saw a significant transformation in ideas about what "Scotland” is, and a resurgence of support for Scottish nationalism—leading, amongst other things, to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 for the first time in almost three hundred years. The chapter argues that the strategies Scottish musicians have adopted in addressing this most iconic of Scottish songs reflect these wider patterns in Scottish culture and identity. In conclusion, the chapter stages its own reconsideration of Burns and his legacy, asking to what extent, given the song’s complex history and prehistory, this can be considered Burns’s song at all.