The heartstring-tugging song that nobody knows

Even as people attempt to sing it, few know the words of the world’s best-known and most-sung song (outside of “Happy Birthday”). Or much else about the mystery song.

Dick Clark, long the host of the new year’s eve TV broadcast from Times Square in New York, didn’t know. “All I remember is ‘drink a cup of kindness,’ and ‘old acquaintances,’” he said.

The song is sung by average people all over the world, in English and at least 40 other languages, from Times Square to Tokyo, at funerals, graduations, farewells, Boy Scout jamborees and other functions. And, of course, belted out to ring in the new year at the stroke of midnight every December 31.

“It’s a malleable song. It’s quite unspecific about the nature of friendship,” says Robert Burns biographer Robert Crawford, “so it lends itself to many different occasions.”

The popular song, of course, is the Scottish tune “Auld Lang Syne” (pronounced sine), the song that nobody knows.

The World Burns Newsletter says that’s no shame. “Even here in Scotland, many could not accurately sing the words. Even those who can get through, get many of the words wrong.”

But that has not diminished the song’s worldwide appeal. Revelers still tear up and feel melancholy, even while merely humming, or while struggling to remember the words or stumbling over them. Such is the hold that “Auld Lang Syne” has on people.

Murky history

Perhaps not knowing the words is fitting, as the earliest origins of the song are murky.

Originally “Auld Lang Syne” was probably an old Scots folk melody with a much quicker tempo suitable for a sprightly dance.

Beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns has been credited with the words. However, the World Burns Club Newsletter says, “It is apparent that Burns ‘restored’ the piece based on fragments of an old ballad dating from before Burns’ time.”

In fact, Burns sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum, writing, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, not even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

Additionally, a letter from Burns to Mrs. Agnes Dunlop, says “Light be the turf on breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment!” Enclosed was Burns’ version of “Auld Lang Syne”.

The melody is doubtless different than Burns had intended back in 1788. “The song begins,” says the Electric Scotland History Site, “by posing a rhetorical question as to whether it is right that old times be forgotten, and is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships.”

The actual meaning of the Scottish words, auld lang syne, are variously translated as old long since, days gone by, old times, or long long ago. But no matter how interpreted, the tune itself reminds singers of past days and old acquaintances as the new year rings in.


Though Canadian band leader Guy Lombardo is often credited with popularizing the song in the U.S., with his annual New Year’s radio and television broadcasts, starting in 1929, records going back further indicate the song‘s popularity. The New York Times in 1896, said “The company joined hands in the great music

room at midnight and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as the last stroke of 12 sounded and the new year came in.”

In 1910, The Washington Post wrote, “the passing of the old year was celebrated in London (England) much as usual. The Scottish residents gathered outside of St. Paul’s Church and sang “Auld Lang Syne” as the last stroke of 12 sounded from the great bell.”

Revelers often join hands and cross arms in a show of friendship and unity, although doing so incorrectly can cause problems, as the Queen of England was berated by the English press, in 2000, for not “properly” crossing her arms, Wikipedia says, only to discover later that the Queen was using the accepted correct Scottish method.

“It has traveled and embedded itself in cultures across the globe,” says Crawford.

“‘Auld Lang Syne’ is one of Scotland’s gifts to the world,” says the World Burns Club Newsletter. “It is an international expression of friendship, fellowship, and hope, recalling the love and kindness of days gone by, but in the communion of taking our neighbor’s hands, it also gives us a sense of belonging and fellowship to take into the future.”

Quite a legacy for a song that nobody knows.

“Auld Lang Syne”

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

And long, long ago.

And for long, long ago, my dear

For long, long ago,

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

For long, long ago

And surely you’ll buy your pint-jug!

And surely I’ll buy mine!

And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

For long, long ago.

We two have run about the hills

And pulled the daisies fine;

But we’ve wandered many the weary foot

Since long, long ago.

We two have paddled in the stream,

From morning sun till dine;

But seas between us broad have roared

Since long, long ago.

And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!

And give us a hand of yours!

And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will

For long, long ago.

Columnist Bill Vossler shoots nature photos for fun almost daily, and shows four on his Facebook page every day. He has produced five consecutive cover photos for Farm Collector magazine, and has published some 8,000 photos in magazines and books.

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