As my regular readers know, I am fascinated by East Asian music and culture. So, I thought I would introduce you all to a rather special musical gem, the South Korean arirang.
The arirang is a fascinating part of traditional folksong. It is both a famous song, and a genre of folk music that contains the word ‘arirang’ or some variation of it. Though the word itself does not have a meaning, arirang has come to be considered a national symbol of Korean culture, expressing the sentiment(s) of all Koreans.
The original melody, brought to Seoul by timber workers from the Jeongseon Region of (South) Korea bringing logs up the Han River for the construction of Gyeongbok Palace in 1867, is mentioned in Homer Bezaleel’s book The Korean Repository (1896). But this eventually became known as ‘Old Arirang’ when a variation of it was written for the hit movie Arirang, directed by Un-gyu Na in 1926. And though it has many melodic variations, the lyrcial content remains relatively similar across regions. A young woman longs for her lover, or to cross the Arirang Pass in the mountains in order to be reunited with her love.
What is so interesting about arirang though is how its numerous variations are considered to capture the warmth of the human spirit and Korean soul, especially when expressed as jung, the warm feeling of a close relationship. The basic story of an arirang is a young woman in longing, and the story is often used as a metaphor for the hopes and dreams of Koreans. In this sense it is a type of lament somewhat similar to the concept of the American music genre known as the blues. A key example of this is the popularity of the tune as an expression of Korean desires such as the reunification Korean families separated by the North/South divide, which can be expressed by the lyric “Do you think the one who abandoned me really wanted to leave?”
The arirang, as a form of Korean “blues,” provides a fascinating window into Korean culture, and represents another example of the wonderful intangible cultural heritage of human civilization.