An Early American “Auld Lang Syne”

Auld Lang SyneHoard of Ancient Gold Coins(Photo: Swiss Banker, English Wikipedia)

“Auld Lang Syne” is a staple of every New Year’s Eve, but few people are aware of this song’s original poignant purpose. Singing it began as a way to recall friends who had died in the previous year. In America in the middle of the nineteenth century, though, it became a way to reclaim the unity and purpose of a nation increasingly riven by divisions.

One of the favorite forms of recreation in early America was singing. In a time when there were few popular entertainments, neighbors and friends would get together and join in singing their favorite tunes. Indeed, singing together was popular enough that the choral group the Stoughton Musical Society, from Stoughton, Massachusetts, organized in the United States in 1786, and formally adopted a constitution the following year just weeks after the founders drafted the U.S. Constitution. Amateur music and singing schools were still popular in rural New England towns in the mid-nineteenth century. Robert C. Kemp, born in Wellfleet, Massachusetts in 1820 or 1821, would turn this popularity into a hymn about the past and the future: America’s version of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Kemp was steeped in the traditions of New England. By the time he reached the age of twenty, he was a junior partner in a thriving shoe and boot business, Mansfield & Kemp at 261 Hanover Street in Boston. He married a young lady, Elizabeth Jane Alden, who would become an important local icon, dressed in her fancy bonnet. After his marriage, Kemp purchased a twelve-acre farm in Reading, Massachusetts. There he planned to live out his years enjoying the rural life.

Because there was little social activity in his vicinity, Robert Kemp decided to invite some young people to his home for some evening singing meetings. In his 1868 autobiography, he explained:

It occurred to me to revive old memories by singing some of the tunes which strengthened the religious faith of our grandfathers and grandmothers, and had often been the medium through which our sturdy and pious ancestors had lifted their hearts in thankfulness to their Maker, for planting their home in the land of liberty. The rehearsals attracted much attention in the neighborhood, and on the evenings set apart for them, the house was crowded with those who came to listen to the performances of the “old folks,” as our neighbors familiarly called us.

After the success of these rehearsals, the singers decided to organize “The Reading Old Folks Musical Society.” They held their first public Old Folks Concert in Reading, Massachusetts on December 6, 1854. Following the success of that concert, the singers were invited to perform in nearby Lynn, Massachusetts. The next year, the singers of the Reading Old Folks Society gave a series of eleven concerts in Boston at the famous Tremont Temple. At that time there were only eleven musicians in the ensemble. That number was quickly increased to forty-seven members in anticipation of an extended tour to several major cities. In New York, they performed before an audience of seven thousand. They were also invited to sing before President James Buchanan in Washington. Other stops on the tour were in Baltimore and Philadelphia. In 1861, Kemp and his singers went to England on a tour. They gave a series of forty concerts in London but Kemp was disappointed with their lack of success. Upon their return, the singing troupe was reorganized and a successful trip was made to the western states in America.

The “Old Folks” initially used the songbooks they could find locally, including one published by the Old Stoughton Music Society. A staple in their repertoire was the old Scottish folk tune “Auld Lang Syne,” a song remembering those who had died that year. The original Scottish words of “Auld Lang Syne” translate roughly to “for old times sake.” In the mid-nineteenth century, the American version carried the quaint title of “Song of the Old Folks.”

When Kemp—known affectionately by then as “Father Kemp”—published his own collection of songs under the title Father Kemp’s Old Folks Concert Tunes in 1860, “Song of the Old Folks” was the group’s theme song. But Kemp’s version was not quite the same as the original “Auld Lang Syne.” In 1855, as the Reading Old Folks Musical Society was beginning to gain in popularity, Kemp asked Albert Laighton to write a new version of the song. Laighton’s words retained the praise for “auld acquaintance,” and the hope for a reunion of friends in Heaven. But at a time when the Union was ripping in two, Laighton also spoke of singing the songs of long ago—“auld lang syne”—to recall the days of “our fathers,” who lived in a time that was “unclouded” and full of “hopes, and happy dreams.” It urged listeners to recall those past days by singing the old-time songs, “the sacred songs our fathers sang.”

This message resonated in Civil War era America. Kemp wrote that “I have given over nine hundred concerts. One million of persons, at a very low estimate, have listened to the music of olden time as we have rendered it. Not a night but I am besieged with applicants for the old music – constant inquiries, where can I get this or that gem? – even offering exorbitant prices for the books in our hands.” Kemp claimed to “have swung my baton before a large choir in upwards of six thousand concerts.” If that is true, his music reached as many as six million people over the years.

By 1868, Kemp had grown tired of traveling. He left the Old Folks and returned to his Boston shoe business. His singing group eventually disbanded. After his wife’s death, he went to live at the Old Men’s Home in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He died in Boston on May 14, 1897. He had been successful in two ventures: selling shoes and conducting music for the Old Folks Concerts.

But the American tradition of singing “Auld Lang Syne” didn’t end with Father Kemp.

The original Scottish tune, with its paean to old friends, appears in films, in national anthems, and in Japanese department stores, which play it at closing time. Father Kemp’s version has also endured, continuing to evoke not just memory of our loved ones, but also of the nation’s history. In 1980, a weekend music festival celebrated the 350th anniversary of the City of Boston. The former Stoughton Musical Society, now the “Old Stoughton Musical Society—it was renamed in 1908– preformed the final concert that, in turn, ended with singing the song’s first verse. It was an appropriate way to recall the pioneering work of Father Robert Kemp, the singing tradition that had been continued for almost two centuries by the oldest choral society in the United States, and the history that made this song so powerful for nineteenth-century Americans.

This New Year’s Eve, when you hear “Auld Lang Syne,” remember Father Kemp and the Old Folks Concerts of the tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century when, as one observer noted:

An audience… assembled to hear again the sacred songs of old time, which seemed to link together the old and the young of three distinct and living generations with the spirits of a century gone by. It was a strange and thrilling scene – this mingling of the gray and venerable old sire with the young and beautiful of a fresher age… it was all beautiful and all good.

About the Author

Roger Lee Hall

Roger Lee Hall is a musicologist and composer who has researched and performed music from earlier America for over forty years. He is currently Director of the Center for American Music preservation (CAMP) as well as the New England Music Archive (NEMA). Also, he is Album Producer for the American Music Recordings Collection (AMRC). For more about his background, see his official site: http://www.rogerleehall.com

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