A Brief History of 'Auld Lang Syne'

Illustration to Robert Burns' poem "Auld Lang Syne" by J.M. Wright and Edward Scriven.
Illustration to Robert Burns' poem "Auld Lang Syne" by J.M. Wright and Edward Scriven.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Every New Year’s Eve, after the champagne has been popped, the ball has dropped, and everyone is feeling very merry indeed, revelers queue up the same song they’ve been queuing up for decades. You know the one—it makes you cry, even though you don’t understand it and know almost none of the words.

A handful of options pop up when you search for the meaning of “auld lang syne”: "times/days gone by," “old time’s sake,” “long long times/ago,” and even “once upon a time” among them. The most common consensus is something like “for old time’s sake,” which is about as direct an interpretation as you can get, as the word-for-word translation is “old long since.” The line about “for auld lang syne” is essentially, “for (the sake of) old times.” (For the record, it never says the totally nonsensical “for the sake of auld lang syne.”) Beyond the words themselves, there’s even less agreement about exactly how the tune came to be a New Year’s Eve tradition.

The song originated as a poem, but it probably wasn’t written by Robert Burns as is commonly believed—at least not entirely. The poet was simply the first person to write down an old Scottish folk song (it bears more than a passing resemblance to “Old Long Syne,” a ballad that was printed by James Watson in 1711). Burns himself said, “I took it down from an old man,” and whether it was transcribed or co-authored, it’s safe to say that the “Auld Lang Syne” we know today is some combination of an old poem and Burns’s creative input.

In any case, Burns sent a copy of the poem to a friend in 1788 and wrote: "There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians!" Later he contributed it to the Scots Musical Museum.

Five years later, Burns wrote to James Johnson, who was assembling a book of old Scottish songs: "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."

It’s unclear whether Johnson linked Burns to the song in his credits, but by the time the book was published in 1796, the poet was dead. He’d never know that those words would eventually help secure his own cultural immortality.

The words aren’t the only element that evolved over the years; it’s believed that the original tune is different than the one we drunkenly hum along to today. Originally, the song had a more traditional folk sound, one that can be heard in (of all things) 2008’s Sex and the City movie. This version is still performed today, but with much less frequency than the New Year standard. The melody we all know was used at the suggestion of music publisher George Thompson.

How then did a Scottish folk song with a murky provenance and nothing at all to do with New Year’s Eve become associated with the holiday? It’s largely thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo. In 1929, Lombardo and his band played “Auld Lang Syne” as transitional music while performing at New York City's Roosevelt Hotel during a New Year’s Eve broadcast. It was played just after midnight, and heard over radio and television airwaves, inadvertently spawning a global tradition.

Today, “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most recognizable songs around the world, where it's played at funerals, celebrations, and as a warning that closing time is approaching at stores throughout Japan.

To impress your date this New Year’s Eve, learn the correct words here—and don’t worry too much about the meaning. As Sally Albright says in When Harry Met Sally...: “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

10 Things You Need to Know About 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

The actual star-spangled banner is displayed at the National Museum of American History.
The actual star-spangled banner is displayed at the National Museum of American History.
National Museum of American History, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1814, Francis Scott Key saw the tattered remains of the American flag still blowing in the breeze after Maryland's Fort McHenry had been bombarded by the British navy all night. Here are a few facts about Key's poem (yes, poem) that we know as the American national anthem today.

1. There really is a specific star-spangled banner.

It's the actual flag Francis Scott Key saw when he was watching Fort McHenry in Baltimore being bombarded during the War of 1812. His tale goes just like the song: after gunfire and rain all night, the flag was still standing when the sun rose. Inspired, Key wrote down what he was feeling—but when he wrote it, it was simply a poem called “Defense of Fort McHenry.” It became a song when Key’s brother-in-law discovered the poem perfectly fit the tune of a popular song called “The Anacreontic Song” (see #3).

Although the song was played at public events and on patriotic occasions from that point on, it wasn’t officially named as the national anthem until after Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe it or Not! noted in his cartoon that “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.” John Philip Sousa rallied for "The Star-Spangled Banner" to become the new national anthem, and on March 3, 1931, Herbert Hoover signed a law making it so.

The actual star-spangled banner that Key observed is now displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

2. There were other contenders for the national anthem besides "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Other candidates included “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Hail Columbia,” and “America the Beautiful.”

3. The national anthem's tune is based on a drinking song.

Before it was a national anthem, the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" belonged to a popular British drinking song. The anthem takes its melody from “The Anacreontic Song” or “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British drinking song sung by members of London’s Anacreontic Society.

4. Francis Scott Key wrote alternate lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

One version of the lyrics, handwritten by Francis Scott Key himself in 1840, changes the version we all know so well. It’s a subtle change, though: "Whose bright stars and broad stripes, through the perilous fight" was written as "Whose bright stars and broad stripes, through the clouds of the fight.” This version is now housed in the Library of Congress.

5. The lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are surprisingly difficult to remember.

It’s a hard song to sing musically because it stretches vocals an octave and a half, but it’s apparently a hard song to remember lyrically as well—at least for some people. In 1965, Robert Goulet sang the national anthem before the big Sonny Liston-Muhammad Ali fight. The crowd wanted to fight him, however, when he botched the lyrics right from the start: “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early night.”

"I walked into that town and I was a hero. Then the fight lasted a minute and half and I walked out of town and I was a bum," he said.

In 2009, Jesse McCartney was asked to sing the famous song before the NASCAR Pepsi 500. He went right from “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,” to “Whose broad stripes and bright stars." McCartney chalked it up to stage fright.

6. A fifth stanza was added to "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the Civil War.

It’s little known today, but it appeared in songbooks and sheet music in 1861. It goes like this:

When our land is illumined with liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

You might be surprised that there’s a fifth stanza—in fact, you might be surprised that there’s a second, third and fourth. The others are rarely played, but you might hear them on really formal occasions. You’ll almost never hear the third stanza, though, which is pretty anti-British. Here are the lyrics to the song in their entirety.

7. Francis Scott Key's grandson was imprisoned in Fort McHenry.

Ironically, Francis Scott Key’s grandson was jailed in the very place that inspired his granddad to write “The Star-Spangled Banner." In 1861, residents of Baltimore who were deemed to be pro-South were held in Fort McHenry.

8. Other countries have played "The Star-Spangled Banner" to support the American people.

The song inspires all kinds of emotions in a lot of people, but there’s one instance where it really tugged at the heartstrings of the world. On September 12, 2001, the Buckingham Palace band played the American national anthem during their Changing of the Guard. The gesture of solidarity and show of support was repeated for Spain (with their national anthem, of course, not “The Star-Spangled Banner”) in 2004 after the bombings in Madrid.

9. "The Star-Spangled Banner" wasn't always played before baseball games.

The tradition of playing the national anthem before a baseball game wasn't standard until WWII. Before that, the song was typically reserved for the seventh-inning stretch.

10. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is really hard to sing.

Our national anthem is so difficult to sing well that radio host Garrison Keillor started a campaign to transpose the song to a more congenial key, G major. He argued that most singers are able to tackle that key with ease, unlike A flat major, the key in which it's typically sung today. So far, obviously, he has been unsuccessful.

A version of this story first ran in 2010.