“The sweetest music this side of heaven”

What do the words to that song we sing on New Year’s Eve mean, and how did a Canadian bandleader become so inseparable from them?

“Auld Lang Syne” has aptly been described as the song that nobody knows, although it is universally the song the English-speaking world uses to bid farewell to the old year and to hail the new.

The song nicely combines a note of conviviality with a poignant sense of loss, just the right mood for New Year’s Eve, when our minds hover between regret and anticipation.

The song we sing now is a version of an ancient song reworked by the 18th century Scottish bard Robbie Burns, a song he said “of olden times” which he took down from an old man’s singing and then improved with the words we (try to) sing today.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And auld lang syne? –

Or is that last line “And days o’ lang syne,” as Burns originally wrote it, or his earlier version “For auld lang syne”? And what does it mean? “Auld lang syne” translates literally as “old long since,” or to make more sense, “and days of long ago.”

Guy Lombardo first heard this song when as teenaged musicians he and his brothers toured the rural areas around his hometown of London, Ontario, which had been settled by Scots. In one of those delightful ethnic blends that are the Canadian experience, Scottish and Italian heritages mixed a unique cocktail.

Guy’s father Gaetano was determined that music play a part in all his children’s lives. In school Guy organized a four-piece band which played at church socials. By 1919, when Guy was seventeen, he and his two brothers Carmen and Lebert had left school to work as musicians. In 1924 the boys boarded a bus for Cleveland and opened in the Claremont Inn. The club owner Louis Bleet suggested a name change from the bland Lombardo Brothers Orchestra, and “The Royal Canadians” was born. Bleet also steered the band towards its unique sound, suggesting that they play softly. When Guy told Bleet that he could not possibly keep up with all the requests for songs, Bleet suggested the medley, for which the band became famous.

Guy moved the band to Chicago in 1927 and played to empty houses until he persuaded the local radio station to put a radio wire into the club. As a result the station was deluged with calls and the club was jammed.

In October of 1929 the Royal Canadians moved to New York and established themselves in the Roosevelt Grill, a two-tiered room with a second dance floor. When the Grill closed, the band moved to the Waldorf Astoria, the site of the familiar New Year’s Eve television broadcasts.

Lombardo developed a rare sound that was unmistakable: slow, rhythmic and above all danceable. Many found it sentimental, but no less a fan than Louis Armstrong talked about the thrill of hearing Lombardo on the radio: “There we would listen to the sweetest music this side of heaven… Guy Lombardo had us spellbound.” Lombardo went on to sell a phenomenal 450 million records, to play to record-breaking numbers of radio listeners and TV viewers. He introduced some 400 hit songs, many of them, such as “Seems Like Old Times” and “Return to Me” written by his brother Carmen. Lombardo would certainly appear on the shortest list vying for the title “best-known Canadian of all time.”

By the time the band settled in New York, it was so popular that two radio networks vied for its services. On New Year’s Eve 1929 Lombardo signed off CBS just before midnight and on to NBC just after. To bridge the gap, he used the old tune that he had learned back home, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Even those who found Lombardo’s sound schmaltzy reverently watched the band count down the seconds to the New Year. Life magazine wrote that if Lombardo failed to play “Auld Lang Syne” the American public would not believe that the new year had really arrived.

Lombardo was mystified why everyone thought that the playing of “Auld Lang Syne” was so brilliant. The Scots in his native Canada had been singing it for years.

And what an appropriate song it is. It evokes a fragrance of the past, memories of old friendships that never die, of old loves that remain young and of the bright colours of youthful dreams.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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