New boxed set 'Battleground Korea' documents music from 'forgotten' war
As long as human beings have engaged in conflict, there have likely been songs to document them.
At least as far back as Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, music has emerged to ease the pain of combatants, to provide comfort and solace for worried loved ones, to urge those in power to find the way to peace, or, of course, to protest.
Here in the U.S., many are still introduced to the Revolutionary War through “Yankee Doodle,” the Civil War with “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie,” World War I with “Over There” and “The Colonel Bogey March.”
World War II produced its own trove of hit songs, including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else But Me),” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
And who can think of the Vietnam War without summoning memories of Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” The Doors’ apocalyptic “The End” or Country Joe & the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.”
The Korean War, however, is something of an anomaly in that regard, one that is addressed in an expansive new four-CD box set, “Battleground Korea: Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War,” just released by the wondrously obsessive German label Bear Family Records.
About three years ago — long before Donald Trump was considered a serious candidate for president and well before his Twitter war with current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un propelled the country back onto center stage of world affairs — co-producers Bill Geerhart and Hugo Keesing went to work on culling music of the Korean conflict.
But they had no idea how timely the set would be when they started working on it.
“As we were writing the liner notes last year,” Geerhart said, “Donald Trump was talking about ‘fire and fury’ and it was all very frightening. And just recently as the box set was being prepared for release, there’s this promise of maybe a summit in Singapore. It’s amazing we’ve gone from that one extreme to the other.”
Together, they oversaw the assembly of a wealth of recordings — most of them from Keesing’s private collection — along with photos, memorabilia and other documentation gathered in a 160-page book. The CDs contain nearly 100 songs and excerpts of news broadcasts about the Korean civil war that erupted after the fledgling North Korean government sent an invading force across the border that had split the country in two after World War II.
Added Geerhart, “I think people — younger people particularly who are mystified about the back story of why North Korea is such a problem today — we hope they can listen to this music, read the book and understand what got us to this point, why we still have troops there 60 to 70 years later on the DMZ, and why the Kim dynasty is now in its third iteration.”
Unlike other major contemporary wars, “There was really only one bona fide hit song to come out of the Korean conflict,” said Geerhart.
That song was “A Dear John Letter,” a country tearjerker duet by singers Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky, which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s country singles chart in 1953. It channeled the sad reality soldiers sometimes faced when wives or girlfriends back home were unable to wait for them to return, and found new love elsewhere.