Guy Lombardo with brothers and sister Rose Marie circa 1954
Guy Lombardo with brothers and sister Rose Marie circa 1954

‘Rabbie’ Burns, Guy Lombardo and Days of ‘Auld Lang Syne’

Variety magazine once declared that Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo was “the only Canadian ever to create an American tradition.”

Life Magazine went as far as to predict dire consequences if that tradition is ever broken: “Should Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians fail to play ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at midnight, New Year’s Eve, a deep uneasiness would run through a large segment of the American populace, a conviction that despite the evidence on every calendar, the new year has not really arrived.”

And on New Year’s Eve 2020, FYI Music News asks: How does a song that is more than two centuries old, with lyrics that few people understand or get right in performance, remain one of the most popular and widely performed songs even today?

English writer and social critic Charles Dickens, who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge,” references Auld Lang Syne in his novel David Copperfield: “As the punch disappeared, Mr. Micawber became still more friendly and convivial. Mrs. Micawber’s spirits becoming elevated, too, we sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ When we came to ‘Here’s a hand, my trusty frere,’ we all joined hands round the table; and when we declared we would ‘take a right gude Willie Waught,’ and hadn’t the least idea what it meant, we were really affected.”

It was sung by British and German soldiers during the Christmas Truce of 1914 as they swapped food and gifts during the early stages of World War I. It provides the soundtrack for the end of the 1946 seasonal classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, and is featured, complete with a discussion on the song’s meaning, in the emotional final scene of the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. A few examples, but hardly exhaustive.

Perhaps it accesses and embraces emotions and experiences common to most of us as we take time to consider the course of our lives and make our resolutions in the transition from one year to the next: the poignant memories of lost loved ones, the comforting thoughts of enduring friendships, the aching regret of squandered love, the nostalgia of life’s sublime moments and a yearning to revisit those idyllic times. Perhaps it’s simply a universal anthem of fellowship.

When brothers Guy (Gaetano), a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame; Carmen, a Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, and Lebert Lombardo were in their early teens, they would often take drives with “Mama and Papa” in the family Studebaker into the countryside surrounding their hometown of London, Ontario, which had a largely Scottish rural population. Not surprising then that they were exposed to old Scottish songs like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” both written by Robert Burns, the beloved national bard of Scotland. They would subsequently incorporate them into the repertoire of their big band which would soon be joined by younger brother, Victor.

Though the ensemble would enjoy great popularity in southwestern Ontario, by 1923 they were looking to expand their horizons and Cleveland, across the lake from Port Stanley where they often appeared, became a gratifying, four-year sojourn during which the band officially adopted the name of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

 An eventful two-year stop in Chicago followed after they accepted a tough-to-refuse offer from the owner of the Granada Café in that city. It was a residency that had a shaky beginning crowd-wise before Guy, who was an early believer in the power of radio, demanded that the club owner provide the necessary means to enable a broadcast to be made from the venue.

Subsequently, the band was heard on newly-licensed local radio station WBBM and the crowds, which included a handful of gangsters who had taken a personal liking to the band, began to swell. Despite the amount of artillery present on any given night, there were few incidents, though on one particularly memorable night, with family members in the audience and the band playing live to air, a mobster with a score to settle showed up and shot dead two men who had slighted him. As the crowd dove for cover, Guy told the band to play on and reportedly, for the first and only time in his career, he took to the microphone and sang the tune piano player Freddie Kreitzer had begun to play – She’s Funny That Way.

The band’s Windy City success and the characterization of the band as “the softest and sweetest jazzmen on any stage this side of heaven” by Chicago Herald-American critic Ashton Stevens, soon came to the attention of William Paley, who had just formed the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and saw a promising match between the Lombardo band and a radio series sponsored by Robert Burns cigars. Paley wanted them to close out the old year from the Roosevelt Grill on his network.

It was an easy deal to accept and, in reality, turned out sweeter than originally presented. At a time when broadcasters must have been unusually broad-minded, with Paley’s agreement, Guy also cut a deal with NBC so that the band was heard on the Peacock Network from midnight to 12:30 a.m. after their 11:30 pm to midnight performance on CBS. That first year they also popped over to the Broadway studios of radio station WOR, a charter member of the CBS Radio Network, for a performance after their time with NBC.

So, it came to pass that on October 3, 1929, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians arrived in New York and took up residency at the Roosevelt Grill in the Roosevelt Hotel, a midtown Manhattan landmark at Madison Avenue and 45th Street, which had been built five years previously and, as one of its firsts, would offer TV sets in all of its rooms. (The hotel closed the week before Christmas this year due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

It was the month of the stock market crash and the Lombardo brothers quickly found their personal financial fortunes in steep decline but, as author and friend of the Lombardo family, Beverly Fink Cline, related in her 1978 book The Lombardo Story, “For a while, the Crash emptied the Grill of its rich New York patrons and out-of-town businessmen. But soon a new audience, younger than before, swelled to hear the Lombardos. So, while men threw themselves off window ledges after losing a fortune, and women and children cried themselves to sleep at night, the stock market crash did not hurt the band’s musical career… Freddie Kreitzer recalls: ‘After a couple of broadcasts we had that place packed out every night. We drew from Yale, Harvard, and Brown, and those kids used to come in their full-dress suits, and it was a beautiful sight to see.”

When the New Year’s celebration shifted to television in 1953, it generally aired on CBS though the first year it was on NBC and in subsequent years, it would also be seen on ABC on a couple of occasions and, of course, the CBC in Canada. As of 1964, the New Year’s Eve’s broadcasts originated from the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue in New York.

On the eve of what was fated to be his 48th and final New Year’s appearance in the Big Apple, Guy, who passed away in November of 1977, talked to the New York Times about that first year in New York. “We hadn’t started our Robert Burns program yet, but we knew what we're going to do and we knew we were going to use ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as a theme, because Robert Burns wrote it. So, we decided to use it on that New Year’s Eve program, too. It seemed appropriate and we were familiar with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ from Canada where we grew up. As kids, we lived in a big Scottish settlement – London, Ontario – and they always closed an evening by playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ before the traditional ‘God Save the King.’”

It was in that general area of southwestern Ontario where one of the greatest Scottish expatriates, Alexander Graham Bell, often spent his summers at Tutelo Heights, his parent’s place just outside of Brantford, and where at his “dreaming place” overlooking the Grand River, he first had the inspiration for his revolutionary new invention – the telephone. Notwithstanding this world-changing achievement, Bell felt that the photophone, a telecommunication device that allows transmission of speech on a beam of light and a precursor of fibre-optic communication a century later, was his most important invention. It was proven viable in 1880 when Bell’s associate Charles Sumner Tainter sang Auld Lang Syne at one end of a modulated light beam and was heard by Bell on the selenium receiver at the other.

And what of the history of the song that is at the heart of a North American New Year’s tradition that had it’s beginnings in the Old World hundreds of years ago?

The fact that Robert Burns, a collector of traditional Scottish songs, transcribed lyrics he had supplemented with his own for Auld Lang Syne in 1788 is pretty straight forward; the origin of the melody is a little more complicated.

The old Scottish strathspey, The Miller’s Wedding (aka The Miller’s Daughter) and a melody used by William Shield in his 1783 opera, Rosina, both will remind the listener of the tune Comin’ Thro’ the Rye, a poem attributed to Burns and set to the melody of the Scottish minstrel tune Common’ Frae the Town. It has a similar melodic shape to the tune to which “Auld Lang Syne” was usually sung, but the words and music had not yet found their ultimate pairing.

In 1793, Burns sent Auld Lang Syne to publisher George Thomson who was compiling a musical anthology. Johnson published it in 1799, three years after Burns’ death, under the title Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice substituting the melody of an old Scottish dance tune titled O Can Ye Labor Lea, Young Man, that is instantly recognizable as the one associated with Auld Lang Syne today.

And, at midnight tonight in Scotland as they celebrate Hogmanay, this ancient tune will herald the welcome departure of 2020 and the hopeful arrival of 2021. In a year without social distancing, while they sang, those gathered would join hands with the person next to them to form a large circle and, at various points in the song, use a certain amount of pretzel logic in accomplishing various movements involving the crossing and uncrossing of arms.

And in a year without a lockdown, many would honour the ancient tradition of “first footing," the belief that the first person to enter your abode on New Year’s Day will bring good fortune to the household for the coming year. There is a stipulation: the “first-foot” should ideally be a tall, dark-haired male, presumably a lingering reminder of the Viking days, when the impromptu appearance of a blonde stranger at your door would inspire a certain amount of panic. For further luck, the “first-foot” should bring items as gifts symbolic of financial prosperity, comestibles, friendship, warmth and good cheer – a coin, preferably silver for luck; bread, shortbread or Black Bun, a dark holiday fruit cake in short crust pastry that includes ingredients like black treacle, brandy, all spice, cinnamon and black pepper; salt, coal, or liquid refreshment (usually whisky).

There could also be an element of courting to these by-invitation home invasions as suggested by this evocative description of first footing from the December 1882 edition of London News Illustrated. 

“The first-foot, on crossing the threshold, at once announced, ‘A gude New Year to ane and a', and mony may ye see,’ or ‘A happy New Year tae ye, and God's blessing’; then kissing the young woman, and shaking her by both hands, they passed into the household. If the visitor had not been seen for some time, the news of the families were gone into, and other matters of that sort; then the whisky-drinking, with health-giving toasts, eating of shortbread, currant loaf, scones, oat-cakes, and cheese were all heartily consumed, then song-singing, sometimes a dance, then more drinking, and at last came the parting, in much hilarity and glee, the ‘toozling’ (or hugging) and kissing of the young woman or women, and then off went the nocturnal visitor or visitors for other calls, until daylight appearing stopped their fun; or else the first-footers kept on making their calls, drinking and carousing all through New Year's Day, and even on, far on.”

No matter how far on you intend to venture this New Year’s, may we offer you the classic Hogmanay greeting: “Lang may yer rum leek” [“Long may your chimney smoke”] and, in your absence, “We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet [Macallan 25 Highland single malt whisky] for Auld Lang Syne.”

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