This time of year Dan Fogelberg’s 1980 hit “Same Auld Lang Syne” pops up on the radio again and never fails to work its spell on me. It falls into a very small category of Christmas songs that aren’t Christmas carols but come out of the tradition of Sixties folkie singer-songwriters in confessional mode.
There’s an unmistakably frank, autobiographical aspect to the song because it’s so laden with specific details: “She said she saw me in the record stores/And that I must be doing well” tells us we’re not dealing with an imaginary character. Fogelberg (who died of prostate cancer at 56 in 2007) was wont to write lyrics such as “Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean/Higher than any bird any flew . . . I’ve been in love with you.”
But “Same Auld Lang Syne” is more like an artful diary entry, a wrencher about running into a former love, having some beers with her, then parting ways forever because that’s the way things have to be.
After Fogelberg died in 2007, his old girlfriend from high school and college, Jill Anderson, stepped forward to say that everything in the song had actually happened, exactly as described, on Christmas Eve of 1975, except that her eyes are green (Fogelberg later told her that it’s easier to rhyme blue than green) and that the man she was married to at the time was a phys ed teacher, not an architect. The two were divorced by the time the song came out at the end of 1980.
Anderson is now Jill Greulich and lives in Missouri, where she teaches second grade.
While he was alive, Fogelberg wouldn’t discuss the origins of the song, and Greulich didn’t talk about it either because she didn’t want to disrupt his marriage at the time.
“I’ll get a lot of messages starting in December. A lot of the people thank me,” Greulich said in a 2018 interview. “Or a lot of them say, ‘I’m so glad it was written because I have a story like that.’ I think it takes people back in their own lives because many of them have had the same experience.”
As the messages roll in, Greulich says her attitude toward such outreach has changed -- she’s now more willing to publicly share her connection to the song. “For a long time, I didn’t want to do interviews. And I didn’t want to respond to anybody who was messaging me. But now I realize people just love the story. They just want me to know that they miss Dan’s music as well,” Greulich said.
“You think of the influences in your life. You can probably name on one hand the people who’ve influenced you the most, said Greulich. “And even though there were years that went by, I still always felt he was a big influence.”
For me, “Same Auld Lang Syne” has always perfectly captured the melancholy aspects of the season — the deepening winter, the sense of ending as the year comes to a close, the relentlessness of time, the natural tendency to take stock and reflect. It’s a beautiful, poignant song. I never change the channel when it comes on the car radio.