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.”
Burns, Scotland’s “Ploughman Poet,” was deeply connected with rural life. He traveled throughout the country collecting traditional songs for posterity. He also enjoyed remaking the songs — or “mending” them, as he called it. “Burns denied he wrote it because he didn’t,” said Murray Pittock, a literary historian. “He edited it, though how much we don’t know.”
Most experts think that “Auld Lang Syne” was created by Burns in 1788 using elements from a variety of source materials. These could date as far back as the 16th century and include works by the Scots poets Allan Ramsay, Robert Ayton and James Watson.
“It’s impossible to say how many texts and tunes ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is derived from,” Pittock said.
“Burns wasn’t the sole author,” Crawford said. “He was a co-author.”
Describing the effect “Auld Lang Syne” had on him, Burns wrote in a letter to his friend Frances Dunlop in 1788 that it “thrilled thro’ my soul.” The letter is on display as part of an exhibit at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum that attempts to untangle the complex history of the song. The show features rare printed editions, a manuscript of the song in the poet’s own hand and Burns’s letters from the Morgan’s collection.
“The genius of Burns was that he recognized the power of this old song, and he revitalized it and preserved its essential Scottishness while capturing universal sentiments,” said Christine Nelson, who curated the exhibit. “He had a genius for touching every note of human emotion.”