“That old crazy Asian war”: the Korean conflict in song
Like other wars, the Korean War generated a number of songs, most of which have now faded into obscurity. The first song about the war, “God Please Protect America”, was recorded by Jimmie Osborne exactly a month after its outbreak in June 1950, and reached No. 9 in the Billboard chart in October, shortly after the Incheon Landings. President Truman’s subsequent dismissal of the hero of Incheon, General MacArthur, was unfavourably received by a number of songwriters.
As the war dragged on, songs of patriotism were replaced by ones about the hardships and loneliness suffered in the hills of Korea. The costly month-long Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in the autumn of 1951 was chronicled in at least three songs. One notable singer who served in the war was Charlie Louvin, who with his brother Ira formed one of the most popular harmony duos of the 1950s; they wrote and recorded some of the more enduring songs about the conflict. At later stages, several songs appeared dealing with the ordeals of prisoners of war.
Most of the songs came broadly from the field of country music, though blues, gospel and mainstream popular singers also sang about the war. In contrast with the Vietnam War, Korea did not appear to have produced any protest songs; it seems to have been seen as an unfortunate but unavoidable continuation of the Cold War, which had given rise to its own musical sub-genre. The value of the war was not questioned in song until many years after it had finished.
The war’s “greatest hit” came at its end. It was a duet between Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky called “A Dear John Letter”. It was recorded on May 3, 1953, and debuted on the charts on July 27, just two days before the Panmunjeom truce. Owing much of its success to its timing, “Dear John” reached No 1 in the country chart, where it remained for 6 weeks, and No. 4 in the national Billboard chart.
Michael Duffy comes from England, and has lived in Korea since 1988. From that time until his retirement in 2011, he taught English at various universities and colleges, most recently at the Korea National Railroad College in Uiwang, where he continues to live. Despite being completely unmusical himself, he has had a lifelong enthusiasm for American music, in particular country and blues, and has contributed to various websites devoted to these and other genres of roots music.