When I’m not back in Canada, I do a guest spot on TBS eFM‘s late afternoon show Re:Play with John Lee. We get together every second Friday for a segement called “Under the Radar” in which we look at music from the ’50s to the ’80s that has largely been forgotten by mainstream history.
This week, we’re doing a show on the music of the Korean War, in commemoration for the Korean Armistice Agreement which was signed exactly 60 years from this Saturday (the 27th). I originally intended to just play a loose collection of songs about warfare, obviously starting with Edwin Starr’s song “War,” but the more I looked into it, the more music I found relating to the Korean War performed by musicians from all around the world.
I go on TBS eFM this Friday, July 26, from approximately 4:30 to 5:30, where I will introduce six songs about the Korean War. But I also want to introduce them to you here, mainly because I’m a better writer than radio host. If you happen to read this in time, you can listen to TBS eFM through this link. What I share here is not the same as what I’ll be playing on air.
Music of the Korean War
Digging into the topic, there was more than I’d expected, but still certainly far, far less than had been released about the Vietnam War. The Korean War inhabits a strange blind spot in history, tucked away between the epic World War II and the Vietnam War which has parallels with the Korean War but is more fresh in Americans’ memories. Likewise, Korean War music occupies a similar status. During the Korean War and in its aftermath as the participant nations digested their experiences, we see an interesting shift in war songs, from the patriotic music of the World Wars to an intermediary step approaching the anti-war protest songs of the Vietnam War. In fact, the experience of the Korean War helped inform the tone of later Vietnam-era anti-war songs, as we will see later.
As a product of its time, most of the music we’ll hear fits into the genres of the day, especially country, blues, and gospel. Recording technology was evolving, especially with the 1949 introduction of the 45RPM 7″ EP, providing music a more compact form of storage, which is where most of these songs dating to the time of the Korean War come from.
At the start of the Korean War, most of the related music released was simply about being deployed or swift victory.
The earliest song I could find about the Korean War was “God Please Protect America” by Jimmie Osborne, an overly religious song asking God to protect American soldiers in Korea. It was a pretty standard war song, highlighting the heartache of family back home and the necessity of victory.
How can we stand another war to take our loved ones dear?
And leave our homes so lonesome with this dread and fear
Our hearts will bleed both night and day for the men out on the line
God please protect America in this troubled time
The song isn’t on YouTube but you can listen to it here.
By this point, nobody really knew what was ahead or what kind of war they’d be fighting. America’s military was in decline in the afterglow of World War II, with most of the combat troops retired and replaced by younger recruits whose experience amounted to overseeing peaceful rebuilding. South Korean troops were seriously outclassed by North Korea’s army, and after the initial outbreak of war the UN forces were pushed south to what is known as the Pusan Perimeter.
After General MacArthur ended the siege of Pusan Perimeter with a successful landing at Incheon, North Korean troops were scattered and in disarray. Soon allied forces were on the streets of Pyongyang, and the war seemed as good as over. At least that’s what Jimmie Osborne thought when he wrote “Thank God for Victory in Korea,” released on October 2, 1950.
For a while it looked to me we would be pushed into the sea
But the good Lord said, “I will not let you down”
He gave us tanks, planes and guns, so America’s fighting sons
Have Old Glory waving in Korea now
You can also hear this song here.
Now, you probably know the Korean War didn’t end in 1950, so this song was very premature. MacArthur continued pushing north toward the Chinese border, alarming the Chinese and ultimately bringing them into the war. A crack at communist China was exactly what MacArthur had wanted, as well as authorisation to go nuclear and lay down a radioactive belt blocking China off from the Korean Peninsula. This is reflected by Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers in the song “When They Drop The Atomic Bomb,” which calls for a swift end to the war (as well as quite possibly all life on Earth).
MacArthur’s arrogance and disobedience to President Truman led to his dismissal and another direction for the Korean War, as well as music. A great number of songs were written in tribute to him, with names like “Old Soldiers Never Die” by Gene Autry and “They Just Fade Away” by Jimmy Short. Most of these songs praised his World War II achievements and grieved his retirement. Here is one such song, “Doug MacArthur” by Roy Acuff, which gets in a jab at the policies that removed him from power.
While he did the best he could
There was some who thought he should
Let the Communists take over all creation
Anyway, that was the worst of it. While these kinds of patriotic songs would continue throughout the war, their days were numbered with MacArthur’s departure.
Songs of the Soldiers
The Korean War saw the rise of first-person songs, telling of the horrors and hardships of war through the eyes of a soldier, a theme that continues to this day.
One example is “Heartbreak Ridge” by the Delmore Brothers, a song about a real battle that inspired a lot of pop culture, from various songs to a Clint Eastwood movie and a French documentary, to a level in StarCraft. Maybe it’s just the poetic-sounding name (actually something I’m going to research for an upcoming blog post).
Remember my buddy? He lived down the street
I saw him fall right at my feet
Please tell his mother as soon as you can
That her boy died a hero, and an honorable man
You can listen to “Heartbreak Ridge” here.
That battle also inspired “A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge,” another popular song which has been performed by a number of musicians, including Ernest Tubb, Wesley Tuttle, and Gene Autry, and gives a decidedly less patriotic and more homesick rendition of events.
I’m a heartsick soldier on Heartbreak Ridge
Across from the river of sighs
Where the shells burst around me
And cover the sound of a poor lonely heart when it cries
My favourite of the singers of this day was Elton Britt, a yodeler who sang a great number of songs for the troops. There’s “Rotation Blues” with lyrics written by an actual soldier, as well as “Korean Mud” which tells of an American soldier dying in the mud and beseeches listeners to donate at the blood bank, and “The Unknown Soldier” which all advocate for the soldier separate from national interests.
My grave is a promise you did not keep
My wreath is a ribbon of pain
and though I am dead, I shall never sleep
If I know I have died in vain
Elton Britt actually did come to Korea to perform for the troops, though I don’t know if he had these songs ready, or his experiences in Korea led him to sing about the subject matter.
Here’s “Korea Blues,” an interesting blues song by JB Lenoir, a Chicago bluesman who brings up the topic of soldiers leaving loved ones back home.
Sweetheart please don’t you worry, I just begin to fly in the air
Now the Chinese shoot me down, Lord I’ll be in Korea somewhere
This was a common theme in war songs even before the Korean War, the separation of a soldier from his girlfriend or wife, as it can be a major source of anxiety. Enemy propaganda often tries to capitalise on the fear of infidelity, but it’s a theme that’s been played out by American musicians themselves.
The most popular song to come out of the war was “A Dear John Letter” by Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky, about a woman leaving her boyfriend for his brother, a cruel end to a relationship especially when you’re locked in war. The phrase “dear John letter” has actually come to mean a breakup letter, originating in World War II. This song inspired the sequel “Dear Joan” by Jack Cardwell in which John writes back that it’s okay because he loved her sister anyway, and “Forgive Me John” by the same original artists in which she changes her mind.
I was overseas in battle when the postman came to me
And he handed me a letter, I was happy as I could be
For the fighting was all over and the battle had been won
Then I opened up the letter and it started, “Dear John”
End of War
On July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. Also, the exact same day, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe released the uplifting song “There’s Peace in Korea.”
I’m so glad at last, there’s peace in Korea
Yes, I’m so glad at last, there’s peace in Korea
Don’t you know, I’m so glad at last, there’s peace in Korea
Because President Eisenhower has done just what he said
You can listen to “There’s Peace in Korea” here.
Blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins released his own song “The War is Over” two days later (60th anniversary on Monday) commemorating the end of the war, but this one emphasises returning to life’s little problems, as well as the anxiety over “that woman,” with some domestic violence added in due to the era.
Yeah, you know the war is over, and I’ve got a chance to go back home
Yes, you know, if that woman done spent all my money, I’m gonna whup her for doing me wrong
Yeah, you know, that’s what Mother been praying for, ‘em to send her poor child back home
Yes, but you know, it’s a sin and a shame for him to come back, find every dime he made is gone
The war’s end also brought a number of sad songs as the survivors counted the dead and arranged for POW exchanges, as well as adapted back into civilian life.
One such song is “Searching for You, Buddy” by Red River Dave, a soul-searching song about a fellow soldier who died in war.
With the passing years it’s almost all forgotten
How we fought and died ‘mid unfamiliar scenes
‘Til me meet someday, old pal, in Valhalla
I’ll keep searching for you, buddy, in my dreams
Johnny Cash turned 18 in 1953 and enlisted in the US Air Force on July 7, 1950, just twelve days after the outbreak of the Korean War. He was stationed in Germany where he served as a morse code intercept operator. While over there, he started playing guitar, and formed his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. He befriended a fellow soldier named BJ Carnahan, and the two of them played all the songs they knew on guitar together and started writing their own songs.
In 1967, Johnny Cash released “Roll Call,” which is often attributed to Carnahan. It may be his only protest song ever released, and it portrays a morbid image of war. It’s most likely inspired by his knowledge of the Korean War, but released to say something about the Vietnam War (more on that later). The song tells of the aftermath of a battle with no survivors. A captain comes and does a roll call, to which nobody replies. Then he looks up to the sky and hears his own voice echoing up there, to which all the soldiers reply.
The roll call was completed but no sign of life was there
Not one man had answered not one accounted for
He turned around and he walked away and looked up to the sky
When he heard his own voice echo and the answer from on high
The names of the soldiers he calls out are members of the Missouri Ozarks who died in Vietnam.
The song was a B-side on a single that wasn’t very popular, so it isn’t all that well known, which is too bad because it’s Johnny Cash at his best.
Fellow country singer George Jones also enlisted during the Korean War, serving in the Marine Corps, but he was stationed in San Jose, California until his discharge in 1953. Decades later, in 1974, he performed “The Door” about the heartbreak of leaving home for war.
Through tear stained eyes I watched her walk away
And of earthquakes storms and guns and wars
Lord nothing has ever hurt me more
Than that lonely sound, the closing of the door
George Jones passed away earlier this year, leading many music fans to rediscover his distinctive music.
Kim Larsen and Jutlandia
It was disappointing I didn’t find more non-English-language songs about the Korean War, but the one remarkable exception remains “Jutlandia” by Kim Larsen.
The MS Jutlandia was a Danish passenger/cargo ship that did three tours of duty in Korea during the war as a hospital ship, garnering incredible amounts of goodwill from UN soldiers as well as Korean civilians. Coming out of World War II, which saw Denmark remain mostly neutral, Denmark was looking to contribute humanitarian aid to the war effort.
When the Jutlandia first arrived off the coast of Busan, it started service treating injured soldiers brought aboard. Senior officer Captain Kai Hammerich confronted the UN over the right to treat Korean civilians, who weren’t considered a priority by UN forces. Finally in July 1951, they were given permission to bring injured civilians aboard, but on the condition that if they received injured soldiers, the Koreans would be sent ashore, even if they still needed treatment. Surplus medicine also frequently disappeared from the Jutlandia‘s inventory and may later be found in inland children’s hospitals.
Hammerich also lobbied for the right to treat enemy POWs, but many of the doctors would come ashore in their spare time to do house calls, and POW camps were one of their stops. They also brought back war orphans, children who were living homeless with no families, and in its later tours of duty the decks were overrun with Korean children running around.
In preparation for armistice negotiations, the UN forces recommended the Jutlandia, but Kim Il-sung disagreed and talks were moved to Panmunjeom. After the war, the ship was decommissioned in 1965, and forgotten by history until 1986, when Danish musician Kim Larsen released the song “Jutlandia,” praising the ship’s contributions in the Korean War.
She sails through the night with all her children
The living and the dead
White as a virgin and brave like an eagle
She goes to war
(Translation courtesy of Google Translate, so apologies if we got it wrong)
Of course the most famous pop cultural reference to the Korean War was M*A*S*H, which started as a book which was adapted into a movie and then became a TV sitcom, about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital set in Uijeongbu during the Korean War. The movie itself came out in 1970 and, like Johnny Cash’s song, used the Korean War to comment on the Vietnam War.
The movie contains many small stories, one of them being about the unit’s dentist who becomes depressed and decides to commit suicide. One of the other doctors gives him a pill, claiming it’s poison, and they hold a mock Last Supper for him and he swallows the pill (which actually is a sleeping pill). He wakes up the next morning alive and feeling okay again.
For the movie scene, director Robert Altman wanted a song to be played by one of the characters, and he had two demands:
-It had to be called “Suicide is Painless”
-It had to be the “stupidest song ever written”
Composer Johnny Mandel wrote the melody, but had trouble coming up with the lyrics. Altman tried his hand at it but couldn’t pull it off either, so he asked his 14-year-old son Mike Altman to write it. The younger Altman wrote it all in five minutes, and the end product impressed the director so much, he made it the movie’s main theme.
Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please
Here’s the actual movie theme, with lyrics.
The song of course is not endorsement of suicide, but performed in the movie very mockingly to ridicule the character’s desire to end his life. I wish I could find that version, as its tone is much more fun and light-hearted. It’s possible that this link might work for some of you. If not, watch the movie.
This post would not have been possible without the Authentic History Center, which provided me with information and high-quality rare recordings of songs from the Korean War. I also got a lot of help from The Truman And Eisenhower Blues: African-American Blues And Gospel Songs, 1945-1960 written by Guido Ran Vijn, although unfortunately most of the music discussed in that book was impossible for me to find online. Do you know any other Korean War songs? Please share them in the comments section.