If there was any doubt that history could be engaging as well as informative, such doubt would be dispelled by a listen to Bear Family’s new release, the 4-CD box set Battleground Korea: Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War. Make no mistake, the handsomely slipcased collection is as imposing and heavy as a textbook, as its four discs are housed within a lavish, 160-page hardcover tome. But this immersive journey can’t help but thrill in its scope and execution. It follows previous Bear Family releases such as Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008 and Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security.
Over 121 diverse, well-curated tracks, the Bear team brings together songs in the various genres that informed American life in the 1950s, including country, pop, blues, bluegrass, folk, and gospel. Battleground Korea offers selections from a wide range of familiar artists such as Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, Red Foley, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, The Louvin Brothers, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (among others, of course). Less well-known names, too, dot the landscape of this comprehensive collection.
The set is organized in more or less chronological fashion by theme, and each disc features both music and key soundbites from the period. Disc One is built around Going to War, with songs chronicling the outbreak of war. Naturally, folk and blues artists were used to writing in a socially conscious vein and didn’t hesitate to include the war in their topical music. Country-and-western sounds are also prominent here.
Lightnin’ Hopkins chronicled the conflict over three songs, the earliest of which opens this disc: 1950’s “War News Blues.” The bluesman unflinchingly painted a portrait of a country in crisis: “Yes, you ‘n I got a warning’, trouble is on the way/Poor children runnin’, cryin’, ‘Whoa, mama, mama, now what shall we do?’/’Yes,’ she said, ‘You’d better pray children, same thing is happening to mama, too.” Prayer is exactly where some artists directed their musical energies, including The Sunshine Boys Quartet (“God Please Protect America”) and Oak Ridge Quartet (later Boys) founder Wally Fowler (“Pray, Pray, Pray (For the U.S.A.).” The Four Barons were more down to earth, with their bitingly satirical boogie-woogie lament “Got to Go Back Again.” On this disc, you’ll hear two different songs entitled “Draftboard Blues” (or “Draft Board Blues”) from Paul Mims and The Vance Brothers, respectively. Similarly, numerous songs were entitled “Korea Blues” including one from Fats Domino, who wails over an arrangement incorporating the familiar strains of “Reveille.” Two distinct “Questionnaire Blues” have also been included, from a pair of future legends: B.B. King and John Lee Hooker (as Johnny Williams).
While Vince Mondi adopted an optimistic tone on the jaunty farewell “Goodbye Maria (I’m Off to Korea),” Arkie Shibley and His Mountain Dew Boys were resigned to an uncertain fate on “Uncle Sam Has Called My Number.” Ditto for “Sorry Girl Blues,” where Max Bailey begs his girl to stay true while he’s overseas. Sonny Thompson’s “Uncle Sam Blues” was a bit lighter, with the singer hoping his beloved doesn’t start “shopping around” while he’s gone. Indeed, artists found every angle to explore in the early days of the war, with many of the themes echoing those in popular songs of World War II. The selection is short on pure pop songs, though crooner Vic Damone (who served in the U.S. military between 1951 and 1953) is heard on a 1952 message recorded while he was stationed in Germany.
The second disc of the box, Somewhere in Korea, presents an array of songs offering perspectives from the battlefield. Country singer Bill Cason imagined a heartfelt soliloquy from a “Foxhole in Korea,” while Oscar Brand recast Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” as “We’re Moving On” with lyrics rewritten to describe the second Communist offensive that pushed the Eighth Army back across the 38th parallel. Jack Powers, too, had a song called “From a Foxhole.” Although that song is a worthy inclusion, the flipside as described in the liner notes sounds more interesting: a rendition of the 1938 standard “I’ll Be Seeing You” with bullets and cannons replacing orchestral accompaniment.
Brand wasn’t the only artist to draw on real-life places and faces. J.B. Lenoir’s “I’m in Korea” was, like many of the songs here, aimed at a loved one left home: “Darling, I was thinking about my kids and you/If I die, what you goin’ to do?” But Lenoir also added the instruction, “Don’t let nobody lay their head down in my bed.” The Delmore Brothers were of the moment when they released “Heartbreak Ridge,” a musical letter to mom, barely a month after the monthlong battle which took place north of the 38th Parallel. The venerable Ernest Tubb’s “A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge” (one of four recordings of the song) also referred to the events that left 1,400 Allied soldiers dead.
Among the most histrionic cuts on the set is Tommy (Weepin’ and Cryin’) Brown’s “No News from Home.” On the torrid blues, the singer hysterically lives up to his nickname. More solemn are spiritually-inclined song such as William Cook’s “A Soldier’s Prayer” (adapting “The Lord’s Prayer”) or Rocky Porter’s “Please Say a Prayer (For the Boys Over There).” Most unflinching are the “death discs” here including the sad, poignant “From Mother’s Arms to Korea” by The Louvin Brothers, Carl Sauceman and The Green Valley Boys’ “Wrap My Body in Old Glory,” and Slim Rhodes’ “Red, White and Blue.”
On the pop side, Bear Family has unearthed a musical PSA for the Red Cross recorded by Columbia Records’ Four Lads, “Where the Need Is,” with narration by broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Another PSA, requesting blood donations for soldiers in need, comes courtesy of children’s favorite Howdy Doody. (Howdy asks kids to remind their parents of the importance of making donations.) Country artist Elton Britt’s “Korean Mud” took the matter one step further. Though a commercial recording, it encouraged listeners to donate with its unflinching proclamation that “it could have been your loved one dying in the Korean mud/So please go to your blood bank and give some of your blood.”
There are two anomalies on this disc from the history-in-song project of Major Arthur F. Dorie, USA (Retired): the epic folk ballads “Inchon” and “The Ballad of Chosin,” both recorded in 2003 by Steve Rogers and John Carpino, respectively.
On the Homefront is the subject of the third disc. It begins with a newsreel clip announcing the death of Private First Class John McCormick, who had written a letter to his family anticipating that he might not come back home; his story not only inspired a Hollywood film (A Yank in Korea) but numerous songs presented here including Red Foley’s “Dear Little Girls,” Tex Ritter’s “Daddy’s Last Letter,” Tiny Hill’s “Two Letters,” and more. The subject of “dad goes off to war” proved a popular one. A mini-suite here goes from Skeets McDonald’s “Please Daddy, Don’t Go to War” to George Simerly and His Tennesseans’ “Why Does the Army Need My Daddy,” Cecil Gant’s “God Bless My Daddy” and The Oklahoma Sweethearts’ “Don’t Steal Daddy’s Medal.”
The dispute between President Truman and General Douglas McArthur prompted songs including R.D. Henden’s “Oh! Mr. President” chastising Truman for his decision, and Gene Autry’s “Old Soldiers Never Die,” based on the general’s famous words of farewell. Autry was far from the only one to jump on this particular train; for other spins on the phrase, there’s Jimmie Short’s “(Old Generals Never Die) They Just Fade Away” and Ray Snead’s brassy boogie-woogie “Fade Away Baby.”
Several more compact song cycles populate this disc. Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s “A Dear John Letter” was, as the liner notes point out, the only true hit single to reflect the Korean War. The No. 1 C&W smash, in which Jean ditches soldier Ferlin via the mail, inspired nine different covers and at least four answer records. Some of those are sampled here: Pete Lane and Bernice Stabile’s “John’s Reply,” Jack Cardwell’s “Dear Joan” and Shepard and Husky’s “Forgive Me John.” A whole segment is dedicated to songs of prayer, including Jimmie Heap and The Melody Masters’ “God Is On Our Side,” Roscoe Hankins; “I’m Prayin’ for the Day (When Peace Will Come),” and teenaged Edna McGriff’s sweetly swooning plea to her “Heavenly Father.”
A rare pop song on this disc is Irving Berlin’s “I Like Ike” as performed by The Promenade Band and a male chorus on RCA Victor. RCA had the cast album rights to the musical Call Me Madam for which the song had been written (though star Ethel Merman, under contract to Decca, was forced to record her songs there, leaving Dinah Shore to lead the Broadway cast at RCA). The showtune was adopted as a campaign tune by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman into America’s highest office in 1953. Ike got further salutes on tracks like Little Maxie’s swingin’ “Drive, Soldier, Drive,” and Eddie Kirk’s “Five Star President,” as a sense of optimism begins prevailing on this collection. (According to Kirk’s tune, Eisenhower was going to lead America to a “way of life that doesn’t need a gun.”)
That optimistic spirit is borne out on the fourth and final disc. Entitled Peace and its Legacies, it emotionally revisits the troops’ return home from Korea with a group of songs and soundbites beginning with President Eisenhower’s announcement on July 27, 1953 that an armistice had been signed. Musical artists were quick to celebrate the end of the three-year conflict, the first of whom was gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her Decca recording of “There’s Peace in Korea” was shockingly recorded the day the armistice was signed. Eisenhower had “done just what he said,” jubilantly proclaimed Tharpe in the sunny, rhythmic number. “We like Ike” was reprised on The Revelers’ simply-titled ode to “Ike,” another jovial tribute to America’s leader.
This disc, too, features thematically-arranged mini-suites of R&B and country selections largely reflecting the national change in mood. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Lightnin’ Hopkins offered identically-titled but otherwise dissimilar tracks called “The War Is Over,” which are followed by Soldier Boy Houston’s “Leavin’ Korea” and a sequence of songs about the boys’ return home: Jimmie Dale’s “Hello, Maria” (an answer to “Goodbye, Maria (I’m Off to Korea),” The King Perry Orchestra’s rousing jump blues “Welcome Home Baby,” Rose Brown and Jimmie Harris’ “Back from Korea,” Dave Bartholomew’s “No More Black Nights,” and Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Back Home.”
What perspectives hadn’t been addressed in song? Ultimately, very few. Kwan Li celebrated “The Legend of Harry Holt,” so named for the co-founder (with his wife Bertha) of an adoption agency for children fathered in Korea by American servicemen. Don Windle’s “The Iron Curtain Has Parted” was inspired by the return of wounded POWs on the eve of armistice; Ernest Tubb’s recording of “Missing in Action” was one of nine recordings of the song about a POW who returns home to find out that his wife has remarried. For good measure, Smilin’ Jim Eanes’ musical rebuke “Returned from Missing in Action” is also featured here.
Much as the Korean War-set M*A*S*H resonated during the Vietnam era, World War II resonated in the era of the Korean War. That’s reflected with Merle Travis’ recording of “Re-Enlistment Blues” from the 1953 film From Here to Eternity. Travis sang it in the film and on the Capitol single heard here, though a pop version by Buddy Morrow at RCA charted higher; Travis’ Capitol labelmate and Eternity star Frank Sinatra, of course, recorded the beautiful title song. A World War II favorite, “Deck of Cards,” was reinvented by Red River Dave McEnery on Decca as “The Red Deck of Cards,” its recitation castigating communism.
Yet the penultimate song on this collection sadly sums up what became of many of the noble, dedicated and brave individuals who served in the Korean War – the men and women to whom this set is a deserved tribute. That song by Don Reno is named “Forgotten Men.” The liner notes indicate that there’s no concrete proof the 1957 composition was specifically about the Korean War, but it certainly seems likely. The song’s stark sadness is still affecting today.
Equal parts propaganda and patriotism, romance and realism, drama and comic relief, celebration and devastation, the songs on Battleground Korea illuminate a war that need not be forgotten. So does the 160-page book which impresses in every way. Between its covers, one will find not only track-by-track liner notes detailing facts about the most obscure of artists, but also essays, photo scrapbooks, complete lyrics, and appendices. Penned by Hugo Keesing with Bill Geerhart, and chockablock with memorabilia and illustrations, it’s a stunning and compelling reference book. The four compact discs are housed on spindles within. Christian Zwarg has remastered the material here under the supervision of producers Keesing and Geerhart and executive producer (and Bear Family founder) Richard Weize.
Both entertaining and edifying, Battleground Korea: Songs and Sounds of America’s Forgotten War is one powerful collection that is not to be missed.