The tune that ushers in every new year was written by a Scotsman—and was made famous in America by a Canadian.
“Auld Lang Syne” was written in 1788 and came from the pen of Scotland’s Favorite Son: poet Robert Burns. (The Scots title translates as “long long ago.”) The song quickly became a part of Scottish New Year celebrations—and it was from Scotland that the tradition spread, carried by travelers and emigrants. It was surely sung by Scot families who made the Atlantic crossing, but it was a bandleader from Canada who put the song in every American home.
In the mid-1920s, Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were a highly popular act—even Louis Armstrong was a fan. In 1929, the band landed a contract to play New Year’s Eve at the Roosevelt Hotel—and have their performance broadcast on the still relatively new medium of radio. It was an arrangement that lasted almost 30 years. And it was at these parties that the Lombardo and his Royal Canadians began their tradition of playing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight.
As the band’s New Year’s Eve radio shows gained popularity—eventually reaching a national audience—so too, did the song (though Lombardo’s big-band arrangements usually excluded Burns’ lyrics). In 1956, they reached an even bigger audience when they signed a TV deal. (This lasted another 20 years, until their show began losing ground to the younger-skewing program hosted by Dick Clark.) By this time—Lombardo passed away in 1977—“Auld Lang Syne” was part of our pop-culture fabric. Today, Lombardo’s version of the song is the one that is played at the most famous New Year’s Eve celebration in the world: the dropping of the ball at New York City’s Times Square.