The Radical Spirit of Robert Burns Lives on, Thanks to the Grateful Dead
As 2021 came to an end and gave way to 2022, you may have found yourself singing, or at least listening to the song “Auld Lang Syne,” which is the traditional song for ushering in the new year.
Did you know you could have easily been listening to “Truckin,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” or any other well-known Grateful Dead song as the traditional kick-off to New Year’s?
Maybe. Or maybe not. But there is a connection between “Auld Lang Syne” and the Grateful Dead. And also to ushering in a more positive future.
Allow me to tell you why.
First off, full disclosure: I am not a Deadhead, nor have I ever been. Which means I have never traveled around the country selling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to make enough money to make it to the next stop on the tour.
But I do know my Auld Lang Syne.
The song was popularized in North America thanks to Guy Lombardo, the Canadian-American bandleader, whose orchestra played it on his radio and TV shows each New Year’s Eve from 1929 to 1977.
But that’s not the origin of the song. It was written 234 years ago, in 1788, by the Scottish Romantic poet and lyricist, Robert Burns. Burns, considered the national poet of Scotland, is an icon and national treasure to the Scots.
Auld Lang Syne is a Scottish phrase, and translates into standard English as “old long since,” but can be interpreted in practice as “old times, especially times fondly remembered” or an “old or long friendship.” And the words to the song go like this,
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
That sweet song was just one aspect of its author, Robert Burns, but is not the reason the Scots hold him in such high esteem. They consider him a national treasure because he was considered a source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism: Burns was a fierce revolutionary democrat who strongly supported the American and French revolutions, was an opponent of monarchy and imperialism, an opponent of racism and slavery, and a friend of the common people by virtue of his advocacy for egalitarian rights.
He was friends and peers with two very important Thomases: Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, both of whom were of a like mind as Robert Burns, in terms of advocating for a democracy that stressed the egalitarian rights of its citizens (though Jefferson had his issues walking his talk, since he was a slaveowner).
Burns knew both Jefferson and Paine—Jefferson lived in Paris from 1785 to 1789, while Paine, the famed American Revolutionary who wrote the pamphlet Common Sense (which to this day is one of the best-selling titles in American publishing history), was British and back living in Europe by the 1780s.
In 1791, when Paine wrote his book, The Rights of Man, in defense of the French Revolution, Burns followed that up in 1792 with a poem, The Rights of Women. Paine’s book was considered so incendiary by the British government that it was banned in the UK, and severe jail sentences were given out to anyone who read or distributed it.
Burns refused to accept what he felt was an unjust law and wrote a poem in honor of Paine’s book. He would have most probably landed in jail for that poem, but sadly, at the all too young age of 37, Burns died in 1796.
In 1941, the great-great-grandson of Robert Burns was born in California. He was given the same name as his famous ancestor, but is more well known as Robert C. Christie Hunter; the change in last name, from Burns to Hunter, occurred when his mother remarried and young Robert took the last name of his new stepfather.
Just like his famous ancestor, young Robert was a nonconformist and imbued with a radical and revolutionary spirit, perhaps coming from his years living in foster homes as a result of growing up in a troubled home with an abusive, alcoholic birth father.
As a teen, Hunter found solace in music, learning to play several instruments. He tried a stint in college, attending the University of Connecticut, but after a year he dropped out and returned to California, where he did a year-long stint in the National Guard.
After his Guard duty, things started to click for Robert Hunter when, living in Palo Alto, he became friends with another musician his age, a guy by the name of Jerry Garcia. They formed a two-man band called Bob and Jerry, but because Hunter’s passion was more the writing of songs (just like his famous great-great-grandfather, Robert Burns), they dissolved the band after a short time.
Jerry Garcia went on to team up with some other musicians and formed a band you may have heard of—the Grateful Dead; Hunter became the main lyricist for the band, writing such Dead classics as “Box of Rain,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Ripple,” “Truckin’,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Jack Straw,” and many more.
One song Hunter wrote that was not for the Dead, but instead written for Jerry Garcia to perform on his first solo album, Garcia, was released in 1972. And it was this song that did his famous ancestor, Robert Burns, most proud.
The song is “Sugaree,” and one of the stanzas goes,
Shake it up now Sugaree,
I’ll meet you at the jubilee,
And if that jubilee don’t come,
Baby I’ll meet you on the run.
The song is sung by a whore to her pimp—the pimp’s name is Sugaree—and the jubilee that Hunter refers to with his lyrics is a debt jubilee, which is the releasing of all debts a person owes. The pimp is getting arrested for the debt he owes, and the whore is saying if a debt jubilee is granted, then she’ll meet him when he’s freed, and if there’s no debt jubilee, she’ll catch up to him when he escapes prison.
In Robert Burns’ time, people went to jail for their debts—it was called debtor’s prison. Up until the mid-19th century, this was where people landed if they owed money, and there they languished until they paid off their debt through prison labor or found a benefactor to pay it off.
Robert Burns would have been ardently opposed to putting debtors in jail, as he understood that it was a mechanism that kept poor people continually oppressed and impoverished.
The practice of debtor’s prison began to end as bankruptcy laws came into effect, although certain countries around the world, and some states in the U.S., still sentence people to prison for specific types of debt. Most probably, the fictional pimp Sugaree would have lived in one of those states.
Robert Hunter’s song “Sugaree” shined a light on debt and what happens to people stuck in the cycle. And he also brought the concept of a debt jubilee back in the spotlight.
Jubilees date back to the Old Testament and the Book of Leviticus; the concept still existed in the 18th century, when Robert Burns lived, though it was no longer practiced. Biblical scholars debate whether a jubilee took place every 49 or 50 years, but what’s not debatable is what a jubilee signified: a cleansing.
Slaves and prisoners were freed, debts were forgiven, and because of this, it was felt the mercies of God would manifest. In the Hebrew Bible, freedom became equated with the release of debts, and it was seen as a way to end human suffering.
Some orthodox Jews in Israel still observe the jubilee year, but that’s the exception, as it’s not been in practice for many centuries. At one time in some countries, kings used debt jubilees to celebrate a regime change and to create a clean slate for all debtors. But that was when the king or the government issued the money. Now that money is issued by private sources—banks—or independent sources—the Federal Reserve—the government is powerless to issue a debt jubilee.
Banks get jubilees: Banks were bailed out when they crashed the economy in 2008, receiving $29 trillion in funds from the Federal Reserve through its Quantitative Easing program. But for everyone else: not a dime. Millions of people lost their houses and jobs, and other debt piled up, but there was no help for the people.
Seventy five percent of Americans die with debt, an average of $62,000. Imagine if there was still debtor’s prison? We’d need more and bigger institutions to house all the penurious souls.
Nowadays, most people aren’t going to jail for their debts, but they’re still in a prison, the prison of I owe: student loan, credit card, car, mortgage and home equity loans, medical, and other debt.
Consumer debt in the U.S. currently stands at over $15 trillion, and it hovers over people like a plague, never going away. Bankruptcy can release a person from some debt, although declaring bankruptcy leaves a black mark attached to your name for a number of years. And not all debts can be discharged: That’s a hallmark of student loans, that they’re virtually impossible to dismiss.
Debt is what fuels the economy, and because of that, banks love to see you in debt.
Not all debt is created equal, though. There’s an American proverb that says, “If you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, you own the bank.” In other words, if you’re part of the wealthy elite, the upper strata, banks will give you the red carpet treatment; if not, you are shit out of luck.
Debt is what enslaves people. If we want to rebuild society, then the idea of a debt jubilee, a debt write-down and cleansing of the slate, needs to be revived. Since COVID, the level of debt has skyrocketed, but even before it was pernicious. Student debt, medical debt, general consumer debt, and purely speculative debt could be released: This would be a real stimulus to the economy, freeing people to spend or save.
A debt jubilee allowed Germany to rebirth their economy after World War II and become the economic powerhouse they are today. In 1948, the Allied Powers wiped out 90 percent of Germany’s debt; from the ashes Germany became an almost debt-free nation, and with that assistance their economy was jump-started.
Contrast that with the post-World War I era, when Germany’s war debts and demands for reparations from various countries bankrupted them. Germany became insolvent and unstable, making them ripe pickings for a demagogue, Adolf Hitler, to rise to power on the promise of making Germany great again.
American consumers are drowning in debt, and are in desperate need of help. Not only would a debt jubilee be a breaking of the chains of the figurative debtor’s prison that such a large number of people live in—and minority communities have disproportionately felt the private debt burden even more—a debt jubilee would be a tremendous shot in the arm to the economy, as people would have more money in their pockets to do with as they pleased.
One way to achieve a debt jubilee is this: Just as the Federal Reserve, through Quantitative Easing, essentially gave debt jubilees to banks, along with showering them with $29 trillion in new money, the same could be done for everyday people. This would take a total restructuring of the economy, but it can be done.
The radical egalitarian Scottish hero Robert Burns would surely approve of a debt jubilee, as he understood that a democracy can only prevail when there are equal rights—political and economic—for all. And his compatriot Thomas Jefferson would also agree, as Jefferson understood the misery banks thrust on people: Jefferson once stated “Banks were more dangerous than standing armies.”
And of course, Robert Hunter, great-great-grandson of Robert Burns, and lyricist of the Grateful Dead, would also concur. All of them, Tom Paine included, would be happy to usher in a New Year with a debt jubilee. It would truly give new meaning to “Auld Lang Syne,” and be, as the name of another Hunter-written song’s title goes (written for Grateful Dead band member Bob Weir’s solo album Ace), “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
It’s time to “take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne,” and give help to those who need it, to help extract them from the aberrant and predatory society we’ve become, and offer a debt jubilee—the means are there to do so.