Published Apr 23, 2018Where previous Bear Family box sets found new ways to anthologize familiar pop culture subjects, like the Vietnam War (Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008) or the Cold War (Atomic Platters: Cold War Music From the Golden Age of Homeland Security), the label's latest work of musical archaeology tackles the Korean War and its aftermath, a period on the eve of the birth of rock'n'roll rarely regarded as more than a footnote in the story of American popular music.
Over five hours and 121 tracks (chosen by producer Hugo Keesing out of the more than 900 war-themed songs), this set expertly weaves together a broad variety of musical and audio documents (mostly songs, but also speeches, news reports and PSAs) to offer a compelling chronicle of a conflict that — in contrast with World War II or the Vietnam War — featured little national mobilization in North America, and on which much of the musical establishment of the time remained silent.
The songs on Battleground Korea address typical war-era themes (the draft, patriotism, life and death on the battlefield, lovers and families back home) as well as less typical fare (Korean war orphans, the Communist brainwashing of prisoners of war), and run the gamut of pre-rock'n'roll genres, from traditional pop to blues to country to spoken-word comedy bits. There are a few familiar names in the compilation's tracklist (Fats Domino, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry, the Louvin Brothers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe all make appearances, the latter with the exhuberant "There's Peace in Korea," recorded on the day the armistice was signed), but the vast majority of these songs and acts like Smilin' Eddie Varnado & the Delta Ranch Hands or Cactus Pryor & His Pricklypears will be unknown to even the most dedicated music historians.
While not every song here will warrant repeated plays — and the inclusion of pair of song-poems recorded in 2003 is a bit jarring — there are plenty of highlights and clever juxtapositions (including different "Korea Blues" from Fats Domino, Clifford Blivens and Willie Brown, or three straight songs based on the same final letter from a soldier to his daughters) on each disc to hold the listener's attention. Of particular note is a sequence, on Disc 3, of answer songs to Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky's "A Dear John Letter" that get progressively more convoluted as each successive act tries to cash in on the initial success of the 1953 charttopper.
Thematic sets like this one usually succeed or fail on the strength of the compilers' research, track selection and sequencing. On all three counts, Battleground Korea is a resounding success and an essential purchase for anyone interested in looking back at a military conflict whose impact on global geopolitics is felt to this day. (Bear Family)