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A Happy New Year and the Auld Lang Syne

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On a night very much like this one, 83 years ago, jazz came to the rescue of Western Civilization.  Big Band leader Guy Lombardo arrived right on time and brought in the new year with his lightly swinging rendition of “Auld Lang Syne," a traditional Scots song that poet Robert Burns used as the basis of his 1788 poem of the same name.  Many a sad-eyed Scot had raised a cup o' kindness and sung along to it before Burns' appropriation of it, and many have since.  The song that sounds so old and familiar to your Western ears that it feels like it must have been played by Druids on stone flutes, may well have been. 

But it wasn't so until Gaetano Alberto “Guy" Lombardo and his brothers Carmen, Lebert and Victor—sons of an Italian immigrant—plus some other musicians from his hometown of London, Ontario, Canada, collectively known as the Royal Canadians, performed it at the famous Roosevelt Grill of NYC's Roosevelt Hotel on December 31st, 1929.

Just two months into what would later be dubbed the Great Depression—after Wall Street's infamous “Black Thursday" on October 24th, when stock values dropped 11% on the New York Stock Exchange, followed by “Black Monday" on the 28th, when they dropped 13%, and “Black Tuesday", the 29th, when they dropped yet another 12%—Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians' performance was broadcast live to such great approbation that their tune grew into a legendary institution, part of annual radio and television broadcasts on CBS and NBC, and became synonymous with New Year's Eve. Imagine that!  An economically ruined nation full of people who wanted to look back fondly at kinder times in the recent past—when along comes a soothing rhapsody that makes all things good seem possible again.  



Lombardo later recorded the tune in 1939, but the now famous 1947 session for Decca Records is the one we all know, the one which has sold millions of copies.  The recording is so entrenched in the tradition of New Year's Eve celebrations that whenever people tune in to watch the annual Time Ball drop at the One Times Square building in New York City, the celebration and telecast begin with a playing of the recording at the stroke of midnight. 



The first lines of Robert Burns' poem “Auld Lang Syne" are the familiar ones, but the rest are just as good.  For those without a firm grasp of the old Scots language, the phrase “Auld Lang Syne" translates literally to “old long since," but more plainly, can be understood as “a long time ago." The phrase “For auld lang syne" can be loosely translated as “for old times (sake)."  If your poetry is a little rusty, just listen and let the poetry sing to you.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

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.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wandered mony a weary fit
Sin' auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidled i' the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roared
Sin' auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne. 


To help you along with hearing the poet's song, here is that famous Decca recording once more, for old times' sake:



Auld Lang Syne.  For old times' sake.

What's so important about doing something for old time's sake?  Well, someone has to break the news to you, I guess.

Jazz is a tradition.  An old tradition.  Listening to it connects a listener to a century(s)-old tradition.  All that banjo-and-player-piano music that is conjured up by the idea of a traditional American music came from a new form that started in 18th-century colonial New Orleans' Congo Square, a place where traditional African and European musics were being combined while a new musical synthesis was created and played on instruments from both continents.  

It was the early 1700s.  Slaves would take advantage of the Sunday off day their French and Spanish owners would give them, and gather at the edge of the French Quarter.  The unique music that was forming finally emerged two hundred years later as something radically new, but still part of a continuum of African and European traditional musics.

Auld Lang Syne.

Louis Armstrong was a big fan of Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians.  Louis and Guy get a lot of a peculiar sort of criticism these days by modernjazz critics—you know, the ones who have finally, forty-some years hence, conceded that Miles Davis was onto something with all that electricity business.  And perforce, their very modernity somehow obligatesthem to reject all musical forms that came before—because they are now old.  These critics and commentators are amateurs with very short memories, rookie historians at best. 

The jazz tradition goes back as far and as deep as you want to travel.  Sound recording technologies developed in the last hundred years have made it possible to hear anything at any time, certainly, and with each passing year the refinements made to these technologies make recorded music much easier and smoother to produce.  But the music doesn't age.  It is ageless, timeless.

As Peter Allen wrote in his song, “Everything Old Is New Again,": 



Don't throw the past away
You might need it some rainy day,
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again.


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This story appears courtesy of Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) by Carl L. Hager.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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