Go Ahead, Sing 'Auld Lang Syne' Badly Tonight Even if you don't know the words, you know the song. Or ... do you? Is the iconic holiday staple slipping away?

Go Ahead, Sing 'Auld Lang Syne' Badly Tonight

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On New Year's Eve, there's a song we sing - "Auld Lang Syne." Even if you don't know the words, you know it, or do you? Reporter Keith O'Brien wonders if this iconic holiday tradition is slipping away.

KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: The end of the movie always gets me. You know the part from "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 George how much they love him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

TODD KARNS: (As Harry Bailey) Good idea, Ernie, a toast to my big brother, George.

O'BRIEN: Then together, they sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

(As characters, singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot...

O'BRIEN: 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 just New Year's Eve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one...

O'BRIEN: The ball drops in Times Square, and there's that familiar song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE")

O'BRIEN: It used to be familiar anyway.

Do you know the words?

DAN CREIGHTON: Not at all.

O'BRIEN: How old are you?

CREIGHTON: I'm 19.

O'BRIEN: Do you know the words?

MATTIE MOUTON-JOHNSTON: No, I don't.

O'BRIEN: How old are you?

MOUTON-JOHNSTON: Twenty.

O'BRIEN: Do you know the tune at all?

MOUTON-JOHNSTON: No (laughter).

O'BRIEN: Do you know the tune at all?

CREIGHTON: I'm trying to think of it. Give me a second.

O'BRIEN: Dan Creighton and Mattie Mouton-Johnston are sophomores at Boston College, and they're not alone. I recently talked to students on three different college campuses near Boston, and again and again, "Auld Lang Syne" didn't register.

CATHLEEN NALEZYTY: Nothing comes to mind.

O'BRIEN: Cathleen Nalezyty is a senior at MIT.

What if I hum a couple bars of the song? Would that help, you think?

NALEZYTY: Maybe?

O'BRIEN: All right, I'll try, I'll go - (humming "Auld Lang Syne"). Anything?

NALEZYTY: I mean, I definitely recognize the tune, but I have no idea what words go with that.

RACHEL RUBIN: I mean, that really just shows that there is some kind of shift.

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

RUBIN: Songs about working on the railroad, which used to be, you know, classic American stuff. And that was interesting because it was both a black and a white tradition.

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

RUBIN: And if "Auld Lang Syne" - which I love - but is becoming less useful to a group of people, they're not going to sing it.

O'BRIEN: The question is why, especially given the song's subject matter, says Ruth Perry, a professor of literature at MIT.

RUTH PERRY: Because it's about drink, because it's about friendship, because it's about the past.

O'BRIEN: The words mean old long sense, effectively old time's sake. Scot's lyrics made famous by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. He collected the words in the 1780s from an old ballad, remade them and the song caught on in part because of Burns' popularity.

PERRY: Absolutely, he was a huge deal.

O'BRIEN: 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 just get together and sing anymore.

PERRY: We've got to revive this tradition. People have to learn to sing together again. I think it's important - I really do.

O'BRIEN: Tell me why.

PERRY: 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, you know, revive that which there is. It's very good for people to feel that they're part of something bigger than themselves.

O'BRIEN: On a recent evening in Somerville, Mass., I sought out exactly those kind of people.

Hi, is this the Robert Burns Society?

JEREMY: Yes...

O'BRIEN: Hey...

JEREMY: ...Come on in. I'm Jeremy.

O'BRIEN: Technically, I'd botched the organization's name, and folk singer Lynn Noel corrected me.

LYNN NOEL: We are known as the Serious Burns Unit.

O'BRIEN: A handful of 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.

NOEL: We are not the "Auld Lang Syne" police (laughter).

O'BRIEN: They're just people who sing and wish others did, too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The more people singing, the better.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's right.

O'BRIEN: ...For at least one night of the year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK, here we go.

O'BRIEN: 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...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot...

O'BRIEN: ...And singing with friends. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien in Boston.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne. For Aaulde lang syne, my deal, for auld lang syne. We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne. And here's a hand...

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