On Burns Night
by M. J. Grant
Hero worship is a dangerous thing. It can inspire, but it can also obscure. The heroes a society chooses for itself tell us a lot about that society, its values, and who ultimately wields power within it. The male, pale and stale—these figures continue to dominate “our” histories, because these are the characteristics of those who first wrote those histories.
Robert Burns, whose birth in 1759 is celebrated in Scotland and elsewhere every January 25th, is no different — except in one regard: he did not come from the same class as those who generally make history. In the dawning era of Romanticism, and its romanticised view of the rural working class (as opposed to its urban counterpart), his status as the “ploughman poet” ultimately worked in his favour. And since egalitarian aspirations have long been a central part of Scotland’s idea of itself, Burns’s place in the Scottish canon seems assured. But not only for this reason. Burns is generally celebrated as a poet, as a writer, but he was perhaps most crucially (and brilliantly) a songwriter.
Music is a part of most people’s daily lives in a way that can hardly be said of poetry. And songs can’t be reduced to their words: they work as musical communication, which is more than words, different than words alone. Read the following words, the first verse of Burns’s most famous song, as a poem:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne?
They may seem a little, well, flat, because they are not meant to be read, they are meant to be sung — and sung in a communal context, as an act of participative music-making. Fun fact: none of the elements of that first verse were original to Burns. What is very typically Burns, however, is the way he simplified the existing elements and made them very singable indeed. So singable, in fact, that millions around the world can and do still actively sing them, all the while claiming they don’t know what the words mean.
Pale and male is Burns still, however. It was by all accounts only the success of his first volume of poems that prevented his emigrating to the Caribbean, there to work as an overseer in charge of enslaved people. And the roots of the traditions we associate with Burns Night — the speeches and the toasts, the musical interludes (especially songs) that flow as freely as the drink — lie in fundamentally male social traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the kinds of evenings organised by supper clubs and fraternities where men met with, and celebrated, other men. Tradition dictates that at Burns Suppers, there is a toast to the ladies, but almost as an afterthought. And indeed, female contemporaries of Burns like Joanna Baillie, Susannah Blamire, Anna Brown, and Carolina Nairne are the opposite of household names today despite the contributions they, too, made to the pantheon of Scots poetry and song.
Hero worship does bring some benefits, however. The ephemera of a hero’s life and legacy are worthy of collecting and archiving — ephemera which otherwise might literally have been consigned to the dustbin of history. My main hypothesis in researching why Auld Lang Syne became, and remained, so famous, was that it must have something to do with the traditions and rituals that emerged around it (long after Burns’s death, it should be noted): singing it at parting; singing it with hands joined, and arms crossed; singing it at New Year. What I was researching, ultimately, were the historical origins and spread of aspects of intangible cultural heritage, things often not recorded in any form. To find out more about these practices, I had to look for any traces of them that had been recorded. Collections such as those of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, including its wonderfully random assortment of “Burnsiana”, offered crucial nuggets of information that led me down new research paths towards new insights and discoveries. Also crucial were advances in data processing and information retrieval that meant I could trawl through decades’ worth of newspapers fast, looking for any reference to the song’s key terms. It’s not least for this reason that it’s so appropriate to be publishing the results of this research with Open Book.
Ultimately, Auld Lang Syne doesn’t belong to Burns, or at least not only to him. Its history has seen it pass through the creative hands of innumerable great musicians, from Ludwig van Beethoven to Constance Magogo, but it is sung, too, by the rest of us, and it belongs to all of us. And a book that celebrates that song should be accessible to all, too.
M. J. Grant is the author of Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture, a new Open Access title available to read for free at https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1253.