Music Review: ‘Battleground Korea—Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War’

Battleground Korea

“War—what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” proclaims Edwin Starr, on his 1970 number-one hit, “War.” I certainly agree with what he was trying to say, but the truth is that war is good for at least a couple of things. Economic growth comes to mind—and so does music.

Just listen, for example, to Barbez’s For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War and such fine anthologies as Songs That Got Us Through World War II and the Bear Family label’s gargantuan (13 CD!) Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record, 1961–2008. Now, from that same label, comes the superlative Battleground Korea: Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War.

The subtitle may be a bit off: the conflict isn’t exactly forgotten at the moment, given the current focus on North Korea’s negotiations with South Korea and the U.S. But it’s safe to say that most of the music on this four-CD box set has been overlooked for decades. And it’s as engrossing as it is obscure.

Typical of Bear Family releases, this is an over-the-top presentation, the result of skillful audio restoration and what must have been years of painstaking research. The CDs are housed in an oversized 160-page slipcased hardcover book that includes insightful essays about Korean War music, the war itself, and popular culture on the home front; a ton of period photos; detailed notes about every track; lyrics for every song; a bibliography covering nonfiction books, articles, documentaries, and novels; lists of feature films about the war and related websites; and an extensive discography.

After scanning the list of tracks, you won’t doubt Bear Family’s assertion that “this is the most comprehensive anthology of music inspired by the Korean War ever released.” The CDs contain 121 selections, mostly songs about the conflict but also sound bites from newsreel announcers and snippets from such key figures as President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur—not to mention TV show puppet Howdy Doody, who makes a request for blood donations.

Country music predominates but the collection also includes a good deal of blues and pop, plus a bit of gospel, R&B, folk, and jazz. Many of the artists are far from famous, but there are also lots of well-known names here, though not all of them had made their mark by the time of these recordings. On the menu, for example, are such major country acts as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Tex Ritter, and Gene Autry; early rockers like Lloyd Price and Fats Domino; and blues artists such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The material is organized by topic: songs about being drafted are grouped together, for example, as are numbers about letters to and from loved ones back home. After we hear a snippet from MacArthur’s farewell speech to Congress, Gene Autry croons “Old Soldiers Never Die,” Jimmie Short & the Silver Saddle Ranch Boys offer “(Old Generals Never Die) They Just Fade Away,” and Ray Snead delivers “Fade Away Baby.” Following a news report on a man named Harry Holt, who brought Korean war orphans to Oregon, we hear Kwan Li, one of those very orphans, sing “The Legend of Harry Holt.”

Many of the performances here—including quite a few of the ones by unknowns—hold up well musically, and even the tracks that seem hokey and dated are extremely evocative of their time. Throughout, moreover, you get a sense of how much our world has and hasn’t evolved since the Korean War.

On the one hand, a cheery chant such as “Ike, Ike, you’re the man we like / Thank God you are president!” sounds like something from another century, which of course it is. And other lyrics here will remind you that when this music was being made, the world felt much bigger and people traveled much less. One song describes Korea as a “far, far distant land” and Truman calls it “a small country thousands of miles away.”

Sadly, though, not much has changed. More than half a century after the combatants declared an armistice in Korea, the war is still not officially over. On a 1951 recording included here, Woody and Lena Mae Hix (recording as the Dixie Ramblers) sing, “I’ll be glad when it’s over, over there.” All these years later, that undoubtedly remains a common sentiment.

Korean War poster

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