Raise a glass to the song "Auld Lang Syne"

The New Year's song: "Auld Lang Syne" 05:23

Another year, another "Auld Lang Syne," the song as essential to New Year's Eve as champagne and a kiss. Rita Braver toasts a cherished tradition:

There's the elegant sound of the Amor Artis chorus ... and the solo voice of young theatre star M.J. Rodriguez.

But for sheer spirit, there's nothing like the New York Caledonian Club, a group of Scottish Americans, because (in case you didn't know) "Auld Lang Syne" hails from the land of kilts and bagpipes.

Just ask John MacDonald: "To Scots, 'Auld Lang Syne' is a very living song. Yes, we sing it on New Year's along with everybody else, but to us it's part of the ceremonies and celebrations that we do all the time."

To learn how it all got started, come with us to the Morgan Library in Manhattan, where there's a whole exhibit on "Auld Lang Syne" (or as it means in "Scots": Old, long, and since).

"Now, we would never say 'old, long, since' in English, so for me probably the best rendition in English is 'For old times' sake,'" said curator Christine Nelson.

She said the story of the song can be found in the letters of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. He was born in 1759 and known for poems and songs like "Comin' Thru the Rye." He was also an expert on old Scottish folk tunes, which is how he said he first came upon "Auld Lang Syne."

"Burns said in one of the letters on view that he listened to an old man singing the song and that it had never been in print or in manuscript until he wrote it down from that old man singing," said Nelson.

But historians believe that Burns substantially re-wrote the words.

"He didn't make any secret of the fact that he was doing what he called 'mending' these old songs," said Nelson. "So that they could be, you know, given to the public for posterity."

Burns thought the tune he originally heard with the song was mediocre, so music publisher George Thompson printed "Auld Lang Syne" with music to a traditional Scottish melody.

"It fit metrically with the words of 'Auld Lang Syne'; we don't have a record of how he made that decision to bring them together, but he did, and that is what we sing now," said Nelson.

Singing "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's became a Scottish tradition that spread all over the world, from Sweden to China.

Guinness World Records says it's one of the most popular songs in the world, recorded by scores of artists.

Harry kissed Sally to the strains of "Auld Lang Syne in the 1989 film," When Harry Met Sally."

But it may be one of those songs best sung in the safety of large groups.

"'Will old acquaintance be forgotten ...' and that's about all I remember of the lyrics," said David from California visiting Times Square.

But the message comes through loud and clear ...

"I think probably everybody has that same sort of reaction, of remembering, of being with people, your family, friends," said Richard Holmes of the Amor Artis Chamber Choir.

"It makes me think of people being together, having a good time and just all those differences that we think about all, any other time of year, just sort of melting away," said Lauren Flecha Page of Amor Artis.

Robert Burns died at 37, long before the song he said "thrills my soul" became a symbol of our shared experience . . . whether we can sing it or not.

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