Somehow we are already steeling ourselves for yet another rousing, heartfelt warble of the Robbie Burns Top 10 hit Old Long Since, also known in that popular obsolete Scots language of the 1700s as Auld Lang Syne.
More loosely translated, this means something like “days gone by,” which makes much more sense that “old long since.”
When we launch into it at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve every year, it sounds mostly like this: “May old acquaintance be forgot, and dum dee dum dum … to mind … May old acquaintance be forgot for Ooooldd Laaaang Siiiign…” etc. and then we really belt out the chorus, which is basically the same words in a different order with a bunch more “dum dee dum dums” in the middle.
And then you raise your glass and shout out a toast to the New Year and kiss everyone of the opposite gender and shake hands with those of a similar gender (depending on what kind of party you are at), and then begin to worry about how you’re going to pull off all those New Year’s resolutions you made.
Nowadays, though, many of us barely make it to midnight and leave the singing, toasting, kissing and resolving to other more energetic souls who sing, toast and kiss at midnight pretty much every weekend anyway.
I’ve always felt that Auld Lang Syne was sort of sad song — melancholy would be a better word — although I think it’s supposed to be a song of celebration. But who can tell with those 18th century lyrics?
But then, I’m a bit of a maudlin weenie when it comes to things like New Year’s, and birthdays and official ribbon cutting ceremonies at random buildings. I get a bit choked up, especially when it involves a poignant crescendo of familiar iconic music. Like O Canada for instance. I can barely get through that without misting up a little. Especially when I know the Edmonton Eskimos are about to be trounced.
But back to New Year’s Eve.
I didn’t attend my first New Year’s Eve party until I was in my 30s. That’s not to say I didn’t actually celebrate New Year’s; my friends and I were paid to be at various events every New Year’s for a lot of years.
If that sounds a bit odd — what I mean to say is that we had played New Year’s Eve dances in a slew of different bands for some 15 years in a row, or more. We were always the ones playing (or attempting to remember how to play) Auld Lang Syne for those on the dance floor and at tables who were happily toasting and kissing and belting it out.
I remember the first New Year’s dance we snagged. Our band was called J + Jazz and we were hired to play at the best gig in town: the Fireman’s Ball.
In those days, firemen would collect and repair toys and other Christmas items for needy families, and the Fireman’s Ball was the main fundraiser for their charity work.
It was the most prestigious event of the year, and so it was a big deal for our little instrumental dance band. Especially since we were known as those musician kids who glided around town in a 1951 Buick Hearse with the name of the band painted brightly on the side and a sign on the hood that read: “357 Pallbearers.”
But that’s another story.
New Year’s jobs always paid about five times more than any other gig during the year, and we got the massive sum of $500 for the night. The Fireman’s Ball was downstairs in The Capri Hotel (I think the ballroom was called the Parkland Room), a classy venue indeed. Most of us in the band were 14 years old that year.
I can clearly recall that earlier that week we had more or less rehearsed the Auld Lang Syne song several times at our practice studio, which also happened to be the sign shop of the dad of our fearless leader John Lacey (the “J” in J + Jazz).
And so when it came time to play the big climactic number at the Firemen’s Ball, I remember there was some confusion as to who the official timekeeper was, but once we sorted that out, everyone counted down to midnight and we launched into the poignant ballad with great gusto.
People leapt up and belted out contradictory lyrics simultaneously and joyously as we crescendoed away at the chorus and started in on yet another verse. As we played away, we rookie Auld Lang Syners on stage began to glance at each other — none of us quite sure how long the song was supposed to be and when and how to end the rousing revelry that was reaching a fevered pitch by now.
After what seemed like three dozen choruses, finally John managed to signal a big shipwreck ending and I slammed an epic shot on the cymbals to finish the song that we had started playing in one year and ended in the next.
When we took a break, I remember feeling a bit melancholy after the big song, and the arrival of a different year and all, and I found a pay phone up in the lobby (this was approximately 100 years before the invention of cellphones, of course). I dug out a dime and called home to wish my Mom and Dad and sister a happy New Year. They had waited up for my call. It seemed to be a very big deal at the time and I guess it was.
So for the next 15-plus years, I found myself with various musician friends playing Auld Lang Syne at midnight each and every Dec. 31, and every time I would still feel a twinge of the emotion from that first one at the Parkland Room at the Firemen’s Ball.
Old habits die hard, I guess, because at every New Year’s Eve since, I still feel a bit out of place warbling out my own dum dee dum dum version of Auld Lang Syne and raising a glass at the end instead of wailing away on a cymbal for the big finish.
Either way, though, it still means the same thing: May you all have a happy and healthy New Year!
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.