Auld Lang Syne

and the dying social song

B. Smith


I’ve always loved “Auld Lang Syne.” It is my go-to answer when someone asks me for my favorite song. I’m aware the answer comes across a little coy or perhaps like an evasion, and I’ll admit that I probably initially chose it to avoid answering the question at all. I mean, when someone asks you that, what is it that they really want to know?

As a high school teacher, I’ve watched this play out in classrooms for years. More so than movies or books, asking someone for his favorite song is a sly way of assessing that person. Most kids have no qualms about telling the class they loved Lord of The Rings or Anchorman. Even shyer students don’t usually hesitate to claim Spirited Away or some other piece of Japanese Anime as a favorite. (At worst, the other kids think they’re weird and leave it at that.) If you get a kid to admit to liking a book, the other kids are often disinterested (or unknowledgeable) on the selection and the answer is quickly forgotten. But music is different. It’s personal—and binding—and all the kids know it.

Unlike a movie that you can watch with your friends, our song choices are usually made in private. They accompany us on our drive home from work and they’re carefully selected on Sunday mornings. They are often confidential choices. Sharing your favorite song with someone else is inviting someone into your bedroom—and some of us would rather be alone.

Still, the question is so attractive. If you could name your favorite song, you could share something private about yourself to someone else. By selecting one, you’re ready to make a commitment and settle down. Of course, even after careful deliberation, it quickly becomes evident that you aren’t so easy to define. A much easier task presents itself when someone asks you for your top ten favorite songs of all time. This is a doable task, you think. With ten selections, certainly you’ll be able to present every side of yourself that you care to reveal. While this seems a more approachable exercise, by the time you get to number nine, it’s clear that you’re about to exclude dozens of songs that you, at one point in your life, couldn’t live without. (While I’ve never tried to list a top fifty, I’m sure the task would get a lot easier. Certainly there are hundreds of songs I like, but there must be some limit to how many I can really love—enough to fight over at least.) The process of creating this mental catalog forces you to imagine different versions of yourself, from your lingering high school persona to your dark, single period. You start to view yourself as a list. When you’ve finally finished, it ends up being about a lot more than songs.

Umberto Eco, the Italian writer and philosopher, describes the list as “the origin of culture.” In a 2009 exhibit at the Louvre and in his book The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay, he argues that to “make infinity comprehensible,” we require an order that a collection or catalog, whether in reference books or museums, makes possible. He goes as far as to say that even shopping lists, wills, and menus are “cultural achievements in their own right.” I’m thankful for Italian philosophers who can justify and lend meaning to my struggle to scratch out a list of favorite songs. I wasn’t wasting time; I was involved in the origin of culture.

Nick Hornby explores the same idea in his novel High Fidelity. For his list-obsessed, music snob record store clerks, the exercise is more than academic. The big moment for them is not so much the creation of the list but its eventual presentation. To them, and many of us, the list is a declaration of independence, a guiding philosophy, a mission statement. The list takes on its real value once you’ve shared it and held it up for inspection. Looking at a friend’s list, you can see the strategy in his inclusions and exclusions. You can appreciate the list’s depth and scope, its mixing of genres and generations. What is this person trying to tell me about himself with these choices? Is the list a reflection of him as he truly is or as he wants to be seen?

In fashioning your own list, you start creating your own rules and guidelines—and allowances. If I’m going to include a John song, shouldn’t there also be a Paul or George song? You say, There’s no way I can include a song Elvis made famous and ignore Sam Cooke or Little Richard. Or, I can’t include more than two songs from the 90s, can I? What would my wife say if I didn’t include our wedding song? While a lot of the internal dialogue centers on questions of equity and balance, the harder decisions are personal ones. These issues are not between you and your potential reader, but between you and the song. You start to feel guilty about the ones you leave off. You’re not so much worried you’ll fail some cool quotient, but rather you’ve developed such a deep, personal relationship with the songs that choosing between “That’ll Be The Day” and “A Day in the Life,” feels a little like Sophie’s Choice. Which Day will you choose?

And so, putting “Auld Lang Syne” at the top of my list has lessened some of this anxiety. For one thing, it’s not a personal song. You won’t find yourself listening to it in the private bubble of your earbuds. And because it’s outside of popular music, it doesn’t really have to compete with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Still, my selection of this traditional song is not just an attempt at avoiding confrontation. It truly is a sublime song, and with each passing year, I’ve grown more and more convinced about my vote for “Auld Lang Syne.” Let me explain.

To start, it is a song of occasion. This is not true of most songs. We might have categorizable moments when we enjoy listening to a certain song: Friday driving home from work, early Sunday morning, in the shower. But these are flexible moments and can lead in many different directions. You are not likely to hear “Auld Lang Syne” blasting from your neighbor’s house in the middle of summer or echoing past a traffic light. It’s moored to time and place.

The song is attributed to the Scottish poet Robert Burns who, in 1788, sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum. His accompanying note described it: “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” Burns acted as archivist here, knowing that bringing the song to sanctuary in the museum would save it from extinction, would make it part of the culture. From old men, Burns collected some of the words and composed the rest—and it sounds like that. Since then, it is sung at funerals, graduations, and bon voyages. It is an official song of farewell. Countries worldwide sing the tune, but the English-speaking world knows it as the definitive song of the New Year’s celebration, as predictable as the stroke of midnight.

Unlike Christmas or the Fourth of July, the guiding sentiment behind our celebration of the New Year is a complex one. There’s a moment at most parties, often to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne,” where we all wonder what the hell we’re celebrating anyway. Whereas Christmas is more of a practiced, family event, New Year’s Eve is a purely social one and a lot less predictable emotionally. Time stops momentarily. It’s unclear which we should be more thankful for: the past year or the one ahead. After a bad year, we’re happy to start with a clean slate; after a good one, we’re worried we might be pressing our luck. New Year’s has got us akimbo, and this is when we are most vulnerable to song.

Auld Lang Syne succeeds because it is unknowable. The Scottish lyrics were never quite completely translated for us, probably because it never really mattered that much. We get the point even if we don’t understand its title completely. We know it’s about the past—and we know it’s about the future. We get the part about having a cup. But the rest of “Auld Lang Syne” is a lyrical paradox. At the end of When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal’s Harry admits to Meg Ryan’s Sally he never really understood what the song was saying:

“I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot?’ Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot ‘em?”

The lyrics embrace the frustratingly beautiful ambiguity of life, how forgetting and remembering aren’t really opposites as much as they are different choices. Sometimes these choices are beyond our control, but many times our memory is formed by conscious decisions—about what we want to remember and what we want to forget. Whatever’s left over, we usually just make up.

The song really captures the timelessness that results when present, past, and future face off. It is instant melancholy. Auld Lang Syne is that beautiful, little moment when you’re just starting to feel the buzz of the night’s drinks, right before the noisemakers give way to the electrical inflations of air mattresses, when you still have some wits about you. Your last sober thought is coming up for one last gulp of air. It’s the moment when you’ve impressed yourself a little bit. You say, I’ve let another year slip away, but that’s okay because here comes another one. I’ll figure something out. For a moment, all your jokes are funny, your observations still kind of keen. You’re a little more generous—with other people, with yourself. You head out into the kitchen to bring out a few more bottles of Champagne. You fill everyone’s glass before your own; you work a toast out in your head; you try to get it out, but your louder, drunker friend interrupts and for once, you don’t really mind; you laugh along with everyone else. It’s fleeting, this moment. Soon enough your generosity will give in to intoxication and exhaustion. But it’s not unexpected; you’ve been through this before. Last year. And the year before that. There’s something comforting about that, really.

Because it is sung only once a year, the song is more precious. The fact that it usually lasts less than a minute also increases its value. It does not ask much from us. It’s able to convey mood and sentiment by the end of the first line. By the end of the song, you’re hugging your friends and your brother’s new girlfriend who you don’t even like that much. You’re kissing your someone-special—or even someone else’s special. This song elicits a kiss—heck, it expects it. What other song can claim that power??

There aren’t many social songs like it. Unless we are frequent churchgoers—and statistically the growing majority aren’t—we don’t sing songs together anymore. I’ll let other people explore all the social ramifications of this fact, but one result of this secularism is less connection with public song. What social songs are left? We still sing “Happy Birthday.” We sing our National Anthem—or try to. We sing “Take Me out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch. (Here in Philadelphia, we sing “High Hopes” after every Phillies win—joining Harry Kalas, our beloved and departed broadcaster, up on the Jumbotron.) But if you’re not at a baseball game or in a sorority or in the military and you’re too old for camp, “Auld Lang Syne” might be one of the last social songs you’re likely to take part in. It might be more accurate to call these songs, Songs of Ceremony—songs that are meant to mark an event.

These songs often act like those authorial shots in movies, the ones where you suddenly remember that you’re watching a movie, when you’re reminded that people worked together to create some moving piece of humanity to hold up and look at. The narrative stops for a second, so the audience can admire a view, can observe an unfamiliar angle, can sweep and circle around a static point. In Rear Window, when Hitchcock slows the camera shutter so we can watch Grace Kelly’s face float through the frame to kiss Jimmy Stewart, that’s what a song does. It elongates, telescopes, and slows down an event.

The effect of a shared song at a social event can double the impact. The performance can stop time and remind people that they’re there as witnesses—at a wedding, at the ball game, at a retirement. We have to pause out of respect and acknowledgment that we are all in this together. At a funeral, it may take one man to deliver the eulogy, but a congregation sings the body out. A song of occasion exists in a space between true, live music and our recorded collections. We neither seek it nor select it. It finds us. It is compelled. It is not truly spontaneous, like songs on the radio; nor is it summoned, as from our computers. It just stoically waits for the proper moment.

Certainly, we all still gather at shows in and around our cities to listen to music together. The concert industry is a billion dollar business and the festival circuit is growing. Even as the record industry sinks in sales, folks find ways to experience music together. As a songwriter and performer myself, I’m happy people still come out to shows, that many of my favorite acts still find time and opportunity to tour, that despite giant corporate live music franchises there are still clubs that clear their stages for exciting, emerging acts, that independent public radio stations, like WXPN in Philadelphia, celebrate songs and artists. The social song, however, doesn’t exist to cultivate or identify with an artist’s career; it’s all about the song. In most cases, the artist isn’t there. The song becomes separate from its author as a new group of amateur singers embraces it. “And if you can’t recall the singer, you can still recall the tune,” Neil Diamond sings in “Dry Your Eyes.”

Political or protest songs make great social songs, but they are few and far between. While the politics of the 60s folk revival and Woodstock united people as a counter-culture and spawned memorable social songs, today’s trends and festivals usually have no rallying element outside of the jam. Despite the efforts of Rage Against the Machine, live music is filled with a lot of machines and not much rage. Political songs come and go, intertwined with the era for which they were written. Songs like “I Shall Be Released” or “People Get Ready” could always make a comeback, but for now, they’ve gone silent.

It might be that the Song of Occasion, of Ceremony—the Social Song—is event-less. We don’t gather as much as we used to, and when we do there’s too many other things going on to allow for a sing-a-long. If we sing less around the campfire or the family piano, if we gather infrequently together for dinner, we’ll need to start imposing on some less likely events.

We could look to film for suggestions. Frank Capra used it at least three times and twice with Jimmy Stewart—once, of course, at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, as the money gets wired in and Zu Zu’s petals are found. But during Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it is sung on the senate floor as Stewart’s Jefferson Smith is sworn in. More than thirty years later, it was the galvanizing song that rid New York City of the negative mojo that fed power to the evil Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II. Now there’s a song that can cast or break a spell. “Auld Lang Syne”: from the Senate to the Street!

When I got an MRI years ago, they told me I could bring in a CD to play during the scan. I remember picking something calming, something befitting the chamber of a long metal tube. But I think if I had to go back again, I’d ask the technicians, radiologists, and nurses to join together in a quick rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” They could hold hands in a circle—probably a safe distance away in the control room.

Many of my students, at the end of the school year, get together on the first day of summer to burn their notes in a bonfire; they could find a happy partner in the song. Maybe even at the end of presidential debates, candidates could put down their defenses for a quick rendition. We could sing it at the end of every losing baseball game. We could sing it when we leave for war and louder when we return home.

We could sing it whenever our heart feels big enough to forgive.