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‘Auld Lang Syne’: New Year’s song has a convoluted history

The Washington Post 30 December 2011

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/GETTY IMAGES – “Auld Lang Syne” translates as “old long since” — “for old time’s sake.” On that point, there is consensus. But more than two centuries after Scottish poet Robert Burns’s death, opinion is divided on the source of the song and how much credit he actually deserves

As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, one song will usher in 2012 in time zones around the world: Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne.” Even in Burns’s native Scotland, many people don’t understand all the words, but that’s done nothing to diminish the song’s appeal.

Although it’s most often associated with the new year, “Auld Lang Syne” is a global anthem of remembrance and fraternity: Type the title into YouTube, and more than 32,000 versions come up, sung by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Alvin and the Chipmunks to toddlers and their grannies. The song is sung throughout the English-speaking world and has been translated into more than 40 languages.

“It has traveled and embedded itself in cultures across the globe,” said Burns biographer Robert Crawford. “It’s a malleable song — it’s quite unspecific about the nature of friendship — so it lends itself to many different occasions.”

Its title translates as “old long since” — “for old time’s sake.” On that point, there is consensus. But more than two centuries after Burns’s death, opinion is divided on the source of the song and how much credit he actually deserves. The poet — author of works such as “Tam o’ Shanter” and “To a Mouse” — denied that “Auld Lang Syne” was his. Rather, he said, “I took it down from an old man.”

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