Sunday, December 28, 2008

Auld lang syne

It can't be five years since I last heard Johnny Cunningham and Susan McKeown sing and play Auld Lang Syne on their Winter's Talisman tour, but it is.

That night, as on each of the tours I witnessed, the crowd stood, and held hands, and sang along with the traditional Robert Burns lyric about embracing friends, family and loved ones despite past harm done.

As always, I'd find myself crying thinking about the son I hadn't spoken to in years. I wasn't the only one in the room wiping a tear away.

At the end of the concert at the Iron Horse, I was rushing to get home. Johnny was outside with a smoke, and some admirers, and over their heads he motioned to me.

"Ed," he said. "Give me a call. There's something I want to talk to you about."

A few days later, Johnny Cunningham was dead of a heart attack.

I miss those wonderful holiday concerts, and Johnny's stories, jokes and fiddling. But I listen each year to the haunting recording of the song on Johnny and Susan's album, A Winter's Talisman.

Preparing to write this, I searched for a recording of the song on the web. It's a beautiful combination of the ancient variant, and the modern version, which was almost ruined for North Americans by the maudlin annual reproduction of it by Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. I couldn't find the Cunningham/McKeown version of the song,(thanks to an anonymous commenter the entire Winter's Solstice performance can be found here.) but I did find an obituary of Cunningham in Britain's The Telegraph, in which I'm quoted.

I wish I could say that I've reunited with my son, and that the tears when I sing it this year will be for a different reason, but, it's not so.

Here are the original Burns lyrics, and an earlier version or the song that McKeown recorded with bassist Lindsey Horner.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp!
And surely I'll be mine!
And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes
And pou'd the gowans fine.
We've wandered mony a weary foot,
Sin' auld lang syne.

We twa hae sported i' the burn,
From morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roared
Sin' auld lang syne.

And ther's a hand, my trusty friend,
And gie's a hand o' thine;
We'll tak' a right good willie-waught,,
For auld lang syne.


Anonymous said...

Google "Kennedy Center Johnny Cunningham" and you'll find the version you want online there....

Ed McKeon said...

Thanks. That's a great holiday gift.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for bringing this tune to life for me. I had never studied, or even remotely understood, the words before. Even now, it took a Wikipedia translation to decipher the Scots verse.

It really is just as sad as it's sounded all these years. And I suppose it's an inevitable, if somewhat sorrowful, way to plunge into the new year -- especially when "auld lang syne" seems to fit so comfortably into one's own lifetime.

It's also a sad post, Mr. McKeon. I hope peace and happiness find you this New Year's Eve as easily as the memories of broken ties.