By Bruce Sylvester
Coming between the near-global horror of World War II and this nation’s raging controversy over the Vietnam War, the 1950-53 Korean War plays a comparatively small role in our collective memory. While WW2 generated pop hits (“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “Der Fuehrer’s Face," “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer”) and the Vietnam War brought us Sgt. Barry Sadler’s "Ballad of the Green Berets" and Country Joe & the Fish's "Fixin' to Die Rag,” the Korean War played little role in its day’s pop music, leaving the commentary to country, blues, R&B and gospel singers and songsmiths.
Bear Family’s fascinating, far-reaching 121-track Battleground Korea: Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War presents such songs on four topical CDs: “Going to War Again,” “Somewhere in Korea,” “On the Homefront” and “Peace and Its Legacies.”
The lineup includes Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, the Louvin Brothers, Merle Travis, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Witherspoon and (with his second single’s B-side) young Fats Domino. The most interesting tracks often come from little-known singers on tiny labels.
Here’s a realistic panorama of soldiers’ and home folks’ feelings about the war. The emotions include heroism, patriotic fervor, acceptance of death for a higher cause (“Far better that your dad should die than you be made a slave.”) and pleas to God. The sentimentality at times seems excessive. There’s both grousing and joking about GI’s living conditions. From two forgotten singers we hear a similarly forgotten writing team’s 1951 “Goodbye Maria (I’m off to Korea)” (a soldier bound to Korea bidding farewell to his Italian war bride from WW2) and 1954’s follow-up “Hello Maria” on his return. As for questioning the war, Sonny Osborne (of bluegrass’s Osborne Brothers) sings, “It’s sad, it’s sad, but it’s true. He had to report over there. The people aren’t happy unless they’re fighting in a battle somewhere,” in “A Brother in Korea” penned by brother Bobby’s wife during Bobby’s time as a draftee. On lively hillbilly “Pusan,” Billy Mize humorously sympathizes with both GIs and Korean civilians caught in the crossfire (“I saw the rice paddies doin’ the burpgun boogie.”). People who’ve seen the marvelous Cold War documentary Atomic Café may remember Jackie Doll & His Pickled Peppers’ “When They Drop the Atom Bomb.”
Songwriters seek effective plots, so the war’s long-distance love affairs didn’t always fare well. The box’s sole number-one hit is 19-year-old country singer Jean Shepard’s sophomore single “A Dear John Letter” with Ferlin Husky playing her betrayed fiancé in the trenches. Its success inevitably led to answer songs and follow-ups including Jean (with Ferlin) on penitent “Forgive Me John.” The Emitt Slay Trio and Hank Penny had similar R&B and C&W spoken-word comedy on philandering girlfriends back home. As for faithful girlfriends, 16-year-old singer/writer Edna McGriff’s quiet prayer “Heavenly Father” made various R&B top-ten charts.
Songs of returning GIs could be tender, lusty or heartbreaking. In Texas troubadour Ernest Tubb’s “Missing in Action,” a soldier presumed dead finds his wife remarried to someone else. Margie Collie sings of a girlfriend going to the station to meet her beloved upon his return only to find him with a war bride.
Amid the songs, we find speeches by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower plus a plea for blood donations from marionette Howdy Doody. We hear iconic General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech (“Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.”) after hearing Truman’s brief talk on his controversial removing the general from command. Fervent songs take MacArthur’s side and excoriate Truman (whose support for the firing has come from places other than popular song). R&B man Ray Snead’s “Fade Away Baby” repurposes MacArthur’s words into a kiss-off (“Do the MacArthur baby. I don’t want you to die. Just fade away.”). Ike’s announcement that the war is over segues into recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s jubilant “There’s Peace in Korea.”
A few tracks post-date the war. John Carpino’s historical “The Ballad of Chosin” (a 2003 recording) borrows lines from 19th-century folk ballad “Texas Rangers.” Oscar Brand & Short Arms’ satiric 1963 “We’re Moving On” is based on Hank Snow’s 1950 “I’m Moving On” transplanted to Korea complete with a camp follower with VD and a mixed-race baby.
A superbly illustrated 160-page hardbound book comes with the CDs. Besides lyrics and essays on each cut, we get a history of the war, singer/writer Frankie Miller’s candid reminiscing on his Korea experience, nine pages of photos of Marilyn Monroe’s visit to the troops and four pages of North Korean posters from the conflict.
In this period of dicey relations with North Korea, the box is especially timely as both soundtrack to the war and historic document.