Credit: GG Culuture Columnist Ciara McAlinden

From commerce to curriculums: Robert Burns in global culture

By Flora Ritchie

Our local, humble poet has an astounding worldwide outreach.

From stamps to statues, banknotes to books, film to festivities and Coca-Cola bottles to curriculums, there is nobody who has infiltrated and influenced global culture at every level to the extent that the Scottish Bard, Robert Burns, has.

As one of the most prominent figures in literary history, it should come as no surprise that his impact on literature is momentous. His transatlantic influence includes the renowned works of American authors: John Steinbeck, who changed the title of his work to Of Mice and Men after reading the line “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley” in To a Mouse, and J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is framed around the protagonist’s misinterpretation of the Burns poem Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. Beyond literary circles, popular artists such as Bob Dylan have named Burns as their greatest inspiration and Michael Jackson’s producer-friend, David Gest, has cited Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter as inspiring the artist’s most famous track and iconic video, Thriller. This is a claim that might seem far-fetched until discovering that the King of Pop was involved in setting Burns’s poems and songs to contemporary music for a musical about the poet’s life. Indeed it is no exaggeration to state that Burns’s work has physically travelled around the globe, as a small book of his poetry literally went on a near 6m mile trip and orbited the earth 217 times before returning to Scottish soil.

Burns’s reach is not restricted to the arts though, and as a figure who didn’t shy away from addressing contemporary political matters in such works as A Man’s a Man for a’ That and The Tree of Liberty, Abraham Lincoln recited his sentiments on liberty to fuel his political campaign during the American Civil War. More recently, his words were appropriated by both “Yes” and “No” voters during the Scottish independence referendum, as each side conveniently ignored Burns’s complex political stance on nationalism to fit their own agendas. 

The Bard’s influence in popular culture is indisputable, but perhaps his presence is felt most significantly through his song Auld Lang Syne, which has become synonymous with ringing in the bells on New Year. As the bagpipes sound from Edinburgh; as the ball drops in Times Square; or as was the case for most this year; as you reside in the confined comfort of your couch, not-so dulcet renditions of the Scots song inevitably resound and have done so since the Guy Lombardo Band first performed it at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1923. Before taking a “cup o’ kindness” became interchangeable with a cup of the alcoholic variety on Hogmanay, the universality of the song’s sentiment established its place in history. This was most prominent in the World War I’s 1914 Christmas Truce, as the soldiers on the Western Front ceased fire to join together in song.

From sites of combat to commerce, the song has also enjoyed an afterlife as a signal for closing-time in Japanese stores. Often referred to as the song that everybody sings but nobody knows, it is sandwiched between Happy Birthday and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow in the top three most sung songs in the world. It’s been covered by the widest range of artists imaginable, from our very own University’s Chapel Choir to Chas & Dave to Mariah Carey, who references the well-kent song’s unknown lyrics as she calls out during the song: “Do anybody really know the words?”Even the fictional realm cannot escape the clutches of Burns as Auld Lang Syne soundtracks the triumphant conclusion to It’s a Wonderful Life, Sex and the City, Elf and When Harry Met Sally. In the latter, central characters memorably question the song’s sentiment before settling on the conclusion that it’s about old friends. The permeation of Burns’ work in every part of culture and widespread enjoyment of his poetry and song over two centuries after his death is a testament to the bard’s genius and a tribute to his artistry.


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