Mairi Campbell examines the music, meaning and history of 'Auld Lang Syne'

This article is from 2018

Mairi Campbell examines the music, meaning and history of 'Auld Lang Syne'

Folk singer and musician's new show explores Robert Burn's beloved anthem to friendship

Mairi Campbell first recorded 'Auld Lang Syne' in 1993 with husband Dave Francis. Since then, it has taken on a life of its own. In 1999, they were invited by President Bill Clinton to perform it for Sean Connery's lifetime achievement award, and in 2008, it was featured in Sex & The City: The Movie. In her new Fringe show, the folk singer and musician takes a deeper look at this Burns' classic, unpacking its history, its musical secrets, and its personal resonances through storytelling, dance and song.

What sets Campbell and Francis' version apart is its use of the original tune. The song's origins are unknown, but Burns first heard it sung by an old man in Dumfries in 1774. 'He added two or three verses and sent it up to Edinburgh to his publisher, George Thomson, who recommended that he change the tune to the one we know today,' says Campbell. The show recounts how Canadian-Italian bandleader Guy Lombardo popularised the song in the 1930s. 'It became the band's signature, and he played it at New Year,' says Campbell. 'And when he moved to television from radio in 1954, it became huge. It spread all over the world.'

Campbell discovered the original version through Francis, who heard it from the singing of Kathleen Roberts at a ceilidh in Aberdeenshire. 'It was a bonnie tune and so we figured it out together. It just had something about it. I realised people really liked it, maybe because it was different but it was familiar. It's in broad Scots, so it's quite dense in terms of what it means, but that's what I try to unfold in the show.'

The sequel to her hit show Pulse, Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne was created with director and dramaturgist Kath Burlinson, and features 'elemental psychedelic' Celtic music co-produced with Dave Gray. Campbell relates the song to her own life. 'The characters and the scenes I'm enacting, I'm getting the information across alongside arguments and make-ups and break-ups.' Campbell adds that there's a great deal of humour to the show, pointing to scenes about Sangstream, the traditional music choir she ran in Edinburgh, and teenage dancing to 10CC. She also weaves in her own songs. 'There's a song called "Green So Gentle" which my husband Dave and I wrote a few years back, and that's looking at all the different sides of life and accepting them all. It's about transition really. And then there's another song called "I Can't Believe" and that's another acoustic song which is from early on in our marriage.'

The show also speculates on 'Auld Lang Syne''s hidden meanings. 'There's a very old tradition in India [of relating] different vowel sounds to different parts of the body,' says Campbell. 'That is something that interests me in terms of music and well-being. I realised the three words, "Auld Lang Syne", if you take the consonants out, those three vowel sounds relate to the belly, the heart and the head. The vowels carry a lot of emotion for us, through us.

'And then in the words themselves, "Auld Lang Syne", there are only four letters that could be musical notes, ADGE, and those are fifths apart. Fifths are quite important intervals, and they're also the open strings of the violin. So there are mysterious goings on in the song. I have no particular answers, but I thought, "this is not just by chance, it does have subtle information bedded into it".'

Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne, Scottish Storytelling Centre, until 27 Aug (not 13, 20), 4.30pm, £12 (£10).

Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne

An original sequel to Pulse resorting to Scotland's most famous song. Adults and 8+.