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Go Ahead, Sing 'Auld Lang Syne' Badly Tonight

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At the end of It's A Wonderful Life, George Bailey realizes he wants to live. And everyone from the mythical town of Bedford Falls comes barreling into his living room to tell him how much they love him and sing "Auld Lang Syne." But television ratings for It's A Wonderful Life have been declining for 20 years. Still, you must know "Auld Lang Syne" from other movies — or at least from New Year's Eve?

Even if you don't know the words, you know it. Or... do you? Is the iconic holiday staple slipping away?

I recently talked to students on three different college campuses near Boston. Again and again, "Auld Lang Syne" didn't register.

"I mean, I definitely recognize the tune, but I have no idea what words go with that," Cathleen Nalezyty, a senior at MIT, says.

Rachel Rubin is a professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She writes about popular music. And in recent decades, she says, we've lost a lot of it: sea chanteys, farming tunes.

"Songs about working on the railroad, which ... used to be classic American stuff," Rubin says. "And that was interesting, because it was both a black and a white tradition."

But today, most people don't work on railroads, making these songs less useful.

"And if 'Auld Lang Syne' — you know, which I love — is becoming less useful to a group of people, they're not going to sing it," she says.

The question is, why? Especially given the song's subject matter: "Because it's about drink. Because it's about friendship. Because it's about the past," says Ruth Perry, a professor of literature at MIT.

The words mean "old long since" — effectively, "old time's sake." Scottish poet Robert Burns collected the words in the 1780s from an old ballad, remade them, and the song caught on, in part, because of Burns' popularity.

But maybe Burns' archaic language doesn't mean much to young people today, in a more diverse society. Or maybe, Perry says, people don't get together and sing anymore.

"We've got to revive this tradition," Perry says. "People have to learn to sing together again. I think it's important. I really do. Because it's bonding. Because it's community-making. Because we don't have enough such glue in our culture. It would be good to revive that which there is. It's very good for people to feel that they're part of something bigger than themselves."

On a recent evening in Somerville, Mass., I sought out exactly those kind of people at the Robert Burns Society. Technically, I'd botched the organization's name when I knocked on the door. Folksinger Lynn Noel soon corrected me.

"We are known as the Serious Burns Unit," Noel says.

These are a handful Robert Burns enthusiasts. They know the man and his song "Auld Lang Syne." They can sing it — a couple of different ways, actually, not that Noel is counting.

"We are not the 'Auld Lang Syne' police," Noel says, laughing.

They're just people who sing and wish others did, too, for at least one night of the year. This New Year's, they say, go ahead and sing "Auld Lang Syne" badly. Stumble over the words. Forget them entirely. None of it matters. As long as you're singing out loud, and singing with friends.

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Keith O'Brien