When Seoul and Pyongyang declared this year that they'd like to formally end the Korean War, many Americans were surely surprised that the conflict wasn't officially over already. Now that we're past the days of ubiquitous M*A*S*H reruns, some Americans may have forgotten the war entirely. But they can rediscover it with Battleground Korea (Bear Family Records), a fantastic four-CD, five-hour anthology bundled with a 161-page large-format book. It's a portal to an emotionally intense period of popular culture.
The collection includes several newscasts and public service announcements, but most of the sounds here are music: dozens of blues, country, gospel, and pop songs that react to life during wartime. The first few tracks overflow with rah-rah enthusiasm, but dissatisfaction soon starts to filter into the lyrics. There's a long series of unhappy numbers about the draft. There are complaints about aggravations both small (k.p. duty) and large (loneliness, death). The set segues from firmly pro-war music to less militaristic tracks and back again, by turns moving, mawkish, and scabrously funny.
It was a bleak time, and the collection ought to remind listeners that no sane person should want a new Korean War. It also reminds us not to mistake an apparent step toward peace with peace itself. Jimmie Osbourne's single "Thank God for Victory in Korea" reacted to the U.N.'s battlefield triumphs of fall 1950 by essentially declaring the combat over, three years prematurely. And when the fighting finally did end, Don Windle celebrated with a POW-themed ballad called "The Iron Curtain Has Parted." He was only 36 years early.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Battleground Korea".