The Story Behind Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg

atkins-bookshelf-musicUnlike the traditional song “Auld Lang Syne” that everybody sings (often in a state of inebriation) and nobody really understands (inebriated or sober), “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg (1951-2007) is a very relatable and understandable bittersweet song. It was released as a single in 1980 and included on his seventh album, The Innocent Age, in 1981. The song, a melancholy ballad, is about a chance encounter between two former lovers and how they are transported back to the innocence of youth; they reminisce, they discuss their current lives, they toast the present. After their nostalgic visit, they part; the songs ends as the narrator watches the first love of his life disappear into the snow, as it turns into rain — a reminder of his broken heart from years ago, and a mature, realistic acceptance of why each of them had to pursue their own dreams apart from one another.

The ballad, as most fans have always suspected, is autobiographical. Fogelberg explained, “In 1975… I was home in Peoria, Illinois visiting my family for Christmas. I went to a convenience store to pick up some whipping cream to make Irish coffees with, and quite unexpectedly ran into an old high school girlfriend. The rest of the song tells the story.”

The “old lover” in that song is Jill Greulich (née Anderson). Wanting to be respectful of Fogelberg’s private life, she did not come forward with her story until after the singer passed away (Fogelberg died from prostrate cancer in 2007). In an interview with the Peoria JournalStar, Greulich shared her on-again/off-again relationship with Fogelberg when they attended Woodruff High School from 1965 to 1969. After graduation, Greulich attended Western Illinois University to major in elementary education, while Fogelberg studied theater at the University of Illinois in Urbana. They dated intermittently during their college years; however they lost touch with one another when Fogelberg moved to Colorado to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. After graduation, Greulich moved to Chicago to work as a teacher and married a physical education teacher. The marriage didn’t not work out, and they were divorced by 1980.

Greulich recalls the details of their chance meeting on December 24, 1975 at the convenience store (located a few blocks north of Woodruff High School), at the top of Abington Hill — the only store open on that cold Christmas Eve. (The store is located at 1302 East Frye Avenue in Peoria; it is now occupied by Short Stop Food Mart; since 2008, the street has an honorary designation: Fogelberg Parkway.) What happened was very similar to the story in the song: unable to find a bar, they drank a six-pack of beer in a car, reminisced, and reflected on their current lives, and parted. And yes, as you can imagine, family and friends worried about where these two were for more than two hours (“How long does it take to find some friggin eggnog or whipping cream during the holidays?”) But remember folks, this was 1975 BC — Before Cellphones).

Five years later, Greulich first heard the song on the radio while driving to work; she was struck by déjà vu — “Oh my gosh! That really happened.” The song is fairly accurate with two exceptions: her eyes are green (not blue), and her husband was a PE teacher (not an architect). The very personal line in the song (“She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn’t like to lie.”) foreshadowed Greulich’s divorce from the PE teacher, before the song came out. Greulich noted, “Somebody said he waited until I was divorced to release the song, but I don’t know if that’s true.” Later in 1980, Greulich married her second husband, Jim Greulich, and the couple moved to St. Louis, where she teaches second grade at a local elementary school. Even without the ritual playing of the song during the holidays, Greulich treasures her memories of Fogelberg: “I’ll always have a place in my heart for Dan… Dan would be a very special person to me, even without the song.”

PS: Ultimately, the eggnog and whipping cream made it to their respective destinations, where it was appreciated and consumed with merriment and good cheer.

Lyrics to “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg:

Met my old lover in the grocery store
The snow was falling Christmas Eve
I stood behind her in the frozen foods
And I touched her on the sleeve

She didn’t recognize the face at first
But then her eyes flew open wide
She went to hug me and she spilled her purse
And we laughed until we cried

We took her groceries to the check out stand
The food was totaled up and bagged
We stood there lost in our embarrassment
As the conversation lagged

We went to have ourselves a drink or two
But couldn’t find an open bar
We bought a six-pack at the liquor store
And we drank it in her car

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to now
We tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how

She said she’s married her an architect
Who kept her warm and safe and dry
She would have liked to say she loved the man
But she didn’t like to lie

I said the years had been a friend to her
And that her eyes were still as blue
But in those eyes I wasn’t sure if I saw
Doubt or gratitude

She said she saw me in the record stores
And that I must be doing well
I said the audience was heavenly
But the traveling was Hell

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to now
We tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how

We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to time
Reliving, in our eloquence
Another “Auld Lang Syne”

The beer was empty and our tongues were tired
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out
And I watched her drive away

Just for a moment I was back at school
And felt that old familiar pain
And, as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain

Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Auld Lang Syne?
The Story Behind Cats and the Cradle by Harry Chapin
The Story Behind Father and Son by Cat Stevens
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
The Paradox of the American Dream

For further reading:

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