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The Heart of Any True Scotsman

“The merry-makers then joined hands in a circle and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’” Thus closed last week’s Plains Folk essay, which marveled at the depth of energy and the sense of community exhibited by New Year’s celebrants in Emmons County in 1885. By this time not only had the custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” established itself on the prairies, but its manner of observance--holding hands at midnight in teary comradeship--was a commonality of such occasions.

Likely the song and custom traveled to Dakota Territory with the earliest English-speaking settlers, but the first reference of its public use of which I have record is from April 1880. The steamboat Rose Bud then pulled up at Fort Yates to take aboard Company I of the 17th Infantry, which was rotating out south. The departing soldiers shouted three cheers and a tiger for their commandant and boarded the boat to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” played by a military band. I think there was a little Scots-insider stuff going on with the ceremony, as the name of the popular captain of Company B was Roberts.

For most of us know that the text of “Auld Lang Syne” comes to us from Robert Burns, who never claimed he wrote it. Instead he set it down in 1788 for publication as he had heard it, and perhaps spruced it up a bit, from popular currency. In other words, it was a folk poem, set to a tune--also subsequently improved--by Burns’s publishers. Scots soon embraced the cobbled composition as a fixture for public occasions of remembrance.

As for worldwide dissemination of the song, including travel to Dakota Territory, the Scottish diaspora took care of that. Any concentration of Scots on the prairies was likely to observe the birthday anniversary of their great poet, as they did in Glen Ullin, North Dakota, on 25 January 1895. The celebration took place at the residence of the local physician, Dr. Stark. Judge J. G. Campbell came over from Dickinson to give an address on the life and times of Burns, emphasizing the potential of his poems “to destroy narrow prejudices . . . and to inspire bigger and broader conceptions of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” The affair closed with group singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Similarly, three years later, a Robbie Burns celebration in Omemee proved to be, reported the Bottineau press, “all that the heart of any true Scotsman could desire.” Fraser and Duncan McLean came over from Antler with their bagpipes. A banquet was served, toasts (lots of them) were drunk, songs (lots of them, too) were sung, and at midnight, all joined in on “Auld Lang Syne.” After that they cleared the tables and chairs and danced until daylight.

It’s a common belief today that the rendering of “Auld Lang Syne” was emplaced in North American popular culture by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians at the Roosevelt Hotel of New York City in 1929. Not so--press reports document that the song was a fixture in Dakota Territory and across the country in the nineteenth century.

Now, this is intriguing: the Devils Lake Inter-ocean in February 1887 reports that at a Masonic gathering, Judge Wishart led a choir rendering “his German version of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’” I believe what they sang in Devils Lake was a translation by Edmund Ruete, “Lang’, lang’, ist’s her.” Despite my horrible holiday cold, I’ll try to give you a sense of what the German version of “Auld Lang Syne” was like.

Und sollten alter Freundshaft wir
Gedenken nimmermehr?
Gedenken alter Freundshaft nicht?
Lang’, lang’, ist’s her.
Lang’, lang’, ist’s her, mein Schatz,
Lang’, lang’, ist’s her,
Drum trinken wir von Herzen eins,
Lang’, lang’, ist’s her.

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