Happy New Year to all our readers around the world. If you're staying in, Mark has some movie picks for the night, a tale for our time, and a look back at some of those we lost in 2017. This essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn store and make a very thoughtful late Christmas gift:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
As the clock strikes midnight, we find ourselves facing yet again the old question: Why are there so few New Year songs? In the Nineties, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black wrote one for Norma Desmond and her designated if unwilling boy-toy at the sad little party scene in Sunset Boulevard:
If you're with me
Then this will be
The Perfect Year...
As we discussed on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show a couple of years back, on the opening night of Sunset, I mentioned to Don Black the paucity of Hogmanay hits compared to the Santa/Rudolph/Frosty logjam. "Yeah," he said, "I think we may have found an opening there." And, indeed, on New Year's Day 1994 the guys were in the Top Five with Dina Carroll's super soulful ululating of the tune. But it's fair to say the song hasn't been heard as much as it might have between the mid-Nineties and my pal Jessica Martin's rendition halfway through our Christmas album. Even Irving Berlin, who has a hammerlock on every other holiday of significance, couldn't get into the old clock-chiming-midnight routine. In Holiday Inn (1942), a concept musical with a score of holiday numbers, he felt obliged to have a New Year song and set it up with a perfect verse of beautiful concision:
One minute to midnight
One minute to go
One minute to say goodbye
Before we say hello...
But by the time we get to the chorus of "Let's Start The New Year Right" he's got nothing to say – no big idea equivalent to the longing for home in "White Christmas", no small but charming idea like the Easter bonnet in "Easter Parade".
So the nearest to a year-end standard remains "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" It was one of the first songs for which Frank Loesser wrote both words and music, and it's very skillful:
Ah, but in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance
What Are You Doing New Year's?
New Year's Eve?
Frank Loesser is one of the few writers who could put a phrase like "jackpot question" on those dreamy notes and make it seem the height of romantic love. It's one of those slow-burn standards that picks up more and more recordings with every year, some coolly ardent (Diana Krall), some cat-stranglingly painful (Rufus Wainwright). I'd like to think my own version falls somewhere in between cool and cat strangling, although I like the little bit of ambiguity in the verse, and at the end. We used it as a question, for which Jessica's "Perfect Year" provides the answer. But the point about "What Are You Doing?" is that it is, as the lyric says, "in advance":
Maybe it's much too early in the game
Gee, but I thought I'd ask you just the same
What Are You Doing New Year's..?
"It is early spring," wrote Loesser's daughter Susan. "The singer, madly in love, is making a (possibly rash) commitment far into the future." That's to say, it's got no place on all those Christmas albums. "It always annoyed my father when the song was sung during the holidays."
Oh, well. That leaves us at the stroke of midnight every year linking arms and singing yet again:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And Auld Lang Syne?
That's the way Rabbie Burns wrote the last line, though it's been streamlined over the years. Whatever the modifications, it is without doubt the best known Scottish song on the planet. If you were to take a soundtrack of the globe across the time zones as December 31st turns to January 1st, you'd hear the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" from New Zealand to South Africa to Ireland to Newfoundland to Alaska. In the Indian Army, it's the march the band plays for the passing out parade. In Japan, it's a graduation song.
Its origins go back almost half a millennium, to the ballad "Auld Kydnes Foryett", published in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568. Sir Robert Ayton, one of the first Scots poets to write in English, created a verse called "Old Long Syne" with the opening lines:
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never thought upon?
Nearly two centuries later, a week before Christmas 1788, Robert Burns wrote to Frances Anna Dunlop (a descendant of Sir William Wallace, Braveheart lui-même):
Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these 'social offsprings of the hear'. Two veterans of the 'men of the world' would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet... Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.
And there followed his first draft of "Auld Lang Syne".
Not long afterwards he sent a copy to The Scottish Musical Museum. They sat on it awhile, having already published another version of the "old song" with words by Allan Ramsay and the same opening line, "Should auld acquaintance be forgot..." And so it was that Rabbie Burns' most famous work did not appear in print until the fifth volume of the Musical Museum, published in 1796 some six months after the poet's death:
And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gies a hand o' thin!
And we'll tak a right gude-willie-waught
For Auld Lang Syne.
Was it really an "old Scotch song"? Clearly the basic idea and key phrases had been around a couple of centuries, and the tune is a folk air dating from at least 1700. But there was a fashion in that pre-copyright era for passing off works as authentic vernacular "folk" songs. In the 1960s, when Bob Dylan and co pioneered what more innocent types might regard as the conceptually problematic brand-new instant "folk song", they had royalty statements to think of. But in Burns' day the points on air play wasn't such a big deal, and he would not have been alone in claiming words crafted in his study as something overheard from some rough-hewn crofter. As he wrote to the Museum:
The following song, 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, is enough to recommend any air.
Well, maybe. But lines like these read as pure Burns:
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
- which, if memory serves, means you'll buy your pint of ale and I'll buy mine. It's Scotch for going Dutch.
Whatever. Only at a few über-authentic Hogmanays in Scotland itself do they ever get to those words, or most of Burns' other verses. There's a weirdly persistent belief, repeated in many books, that it was Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians who made "Auld Lang Syne" a New Year's Eve song when they played it on a coast-to-coast radio broadcast from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on December 31st 1929. This is simply silly. There's plenty of documentary evidence establishing "Auld Lang Syne" as a Hogmanay favorite since the mid-19th century:
The company joined hands in the great music room at midnight and sang 'Auld Lang Syne' as the last stroke of 12 sounded.
That's from The New York Times in 1896.
Burns was the nearest thing to a Scottish rock star when he died, and within a couple of years "Burns Night" suppers honoring the great man were a familiar feature of his country's calendar. As the great Scots diaspora fanned out around the British Empire, they took "Auld Lang Syne" to Kenya and Malaya and Hong Kong and Queensland and Saskatchewan. Guy Lombardo, who must surely have known the song in his native Canada long before he ever played it professionally, was perhaps the first musical figure to respond to the music rather than the words. Granted, the tune was good enough to have turned up in any number of places: William Shield used it in his ballad opera of 1782, Rosina. But Lombardo heard it as a sentimental slow dance, a tune full of wistfulness and ache rather than merely a functional setting for Burns' words. That 1929 radio show from the Waldorf-Astoria came a few months after the Wall Street Crash: rarely has any New Year's Eve infused the turn of the calendar with so many hopes for a fresh start. Yet, in a sense, Lombardo enlarged the context of the song not just for 1929 but for all time. It's striking how, within a few years, the "conventional" New Year scene – with the clock striking 12 and the band (either live or on radio) striking up "Auld Lang Syne" – had insinuated itself into so many movies and plays. In 1983, in Dance A Little Closer (or Close A Little Faster, as the Broadway schadenfreude set dubbed it after it collapsed on opening night), Charles Strouse and Alan Jay Lerner updated the old Norma Shearer/Clark Gable movie Idiot's Delight for a planet on the brink of the Third World War.
They included a scene set in a Mitteleuropean hotel on New Year's Eve in which the revelries are contrasted with what one man believes to be the coming nuclear Armageddon, and Alan and Charlie wrote a contrapuntal number to be sung alongside "Auld Lang Syne". As the revelers are staggering through "Should auld acquaintance be forgot?", the leading man warbles cynically, "Bombs are in the air, boom-de-boom-de-ay... Have a happy, happy New Year."
Somewhat predictable in its limousine liberalism, the moment nevertheless conforms to the traditional dramatic deployment of "Auld Lang Syne" in the post-Lombardo era, whereby the song is used in bleary boozy ironic counterpoint to whatever crisis is being played out against it. Think of When Harry Met Sally, as the former finally decides he can't live without the latter and blabbers out his love at the big New Year's Eve party, pausing only to reflect on the song:
HARRY: What does this song mean? For 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: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it's about old friends.
Not all midnight crises are so satisfactorily resolved. In my mind's eye I can dimly see my teenage self arguing with some long-ago date in the December/January chill as "Auld Lang Syne" is sung inside - a kind of dreary adolescent reductio of Dance A little Closer's ironic counterpoint. Perhaps that's why so many people seem to dislike the song: it embodies either forced jollity or, worse, a forced jollity from which the vicissitudes of life have conspired to exclude you that particular evening. That's one reason I enjoyed December 31st in my corner of New Hampshire, where the New Year's Eve parties seem to break up around nine so everyone can get a nice early start to the working day at five or four or some even ungodlier hour. Even in 1999, on the eve of the big Y2K, most folks couldn't seem to stay up past ten or eleven.
But in the fleshpots of the metropolis they'll be standing around, as they did last year and as they will next year, baying:
For Auld Lang Syne, my dear
For Auld Lang Syne
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne...
What does it mean? Well, I think Allan Sherman's English translation really gets to the heart of it:
I know a man, his name is Lang
He has a neon sign
And Mr Lang is very old
So they call it Old Lang's Sign.
Happy New Year!
~adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn store (and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your promotional code to enjoy special member pricing).
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