'Battleground Korea' Shines A Light on Music Inspired by America's 'Forgotten War'

Marilyn Monroe
Bettmann/Getty Images

Marilyn Monroe in Korea in 1954.

After its epic Next Stop Is Vietnam collection, Germany's Bear Family Records and producer Hugo A. Keesing quickly came up with their next collection of war music.

Battleground Korea: Songs And Sounds Of America's Forgotten War comes out March 23, with its four CDs offering a genre-spanning gathering of 121 tracks about or inspired by the war, ranging from the likes of blues and R&B stalwarts John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Lightnin' Hopkins to country artists such as Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry, Merle Travis and Jimmie Osborne, whose 1953 song "The Korean Story," which Keesing calls "a three-minute summary of the war," is below.

"I think of pop music up through the Vietnam Era as what bloggers are doing today; It's an opportunity for people to write down their thoughts and share them," Keesing, a historian who taught Popular Music in American Society classes for the University of Maryland and worked as an instructor for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency before retiring in 2006, explains to Billboard. "Korea, I thought, was a very legitimate topic. At the time I began this Trump was not in office so Korea was in the news for its intercontinental missiles and nuclear tests, but right now it's big in the headlines, front page, above the fold. And with the Olympics in Korea this year the timing is good for this to come out, and I hope it can serve as a history lesson."

Besides the wide range of genres, Battleground Korea -- which also includes spoken-word audio and news reports as well as a book by Keesing and package executive producer Bill Geerhart -- also traces a gamut of viewpoints about the war that reflect attitudes back on U.S. soil. There are tongue-in-cheek songs making fun of North Korea as well as patriotic anthems and protest songs. Keesing notes that the bulk of the war-related music came from outside the pop mainstream. "Pop music largely stayed away from it," he says. "Country music, which was labeled Western, was either tongue-in-cheek or patriotic. Blues or 'race music' artists were complaining about getting their message from Uncle Sam that they were being recalled (for military service) or were getting their draft notices. There was certainly a racial divide in how the early, beginning of the war was put into musical terms." And after studying the Billboard charts of the time, Keesing learned that war "hits" -- such as 1953's "Dear John" -- were few and far between.

"The record-buying public was not much interested in the war," Keesing says. "These are not songs that became huge hits. And back in those days Billboard rated records that came out on a 0-100 scale, and most of the ratings for these songs were in the 60s or 70s -- mostly OK, but nothing stood out."

Osborne, meanwhile, was among the prolific artists addressing the war, recording several songs both during and after. He was one of several performers who recorded "Missing In Action," which charted for Tubb, while "The Korean Story" came out shortly after the armistice during August of 1953. Keesing also discovered another Osborne song, "Come Back To Your Loved Ones, My Prodigal Son" -- addressed to a small group of soldiers who remained in Korea and eventually went to China -- that isn't included on Battleground Korea but that he would like to make part of a follow-up compilation of songs from the immediate post-war wake.

"There were a number of records from August 1953 through the middle of 1954, some compelling material that post-dated the war and offers more perspective about how the war was viewed and what the mindset of the country was," Keesing says. "It's interesting to hear them in the context of how other wars were viewed after they ended, so I'm hoping if the reception is good for (Battleground Korea) we can put together a good one or two CDs of music that reveal even more about the Korean War."


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