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            Arirang is a traditional Korean folksong, and it would be difficult, indeed, to posit another song more beloved and important in Korean culture.  Dating back probably six hundred years, its melody and the story in the lyrics are ubiquitous in a variety of Korean social contexts.  Five films—the first from 1926--festivals, pop music groups, the official broadcasting service, aerospace institutes, and more, all are named after the song.  In many respects the unofficial national anthem of South Korea, its parallel in this country might be “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “Shenandoah,” all rolled together.  To many contemporary Koreans it may symbolize the tragic division of the country, for the essence of the song’s lyrics tell of the woe of a young couple, torn apart by circumstances, and a travail crossing a mountain pass.  The song takes its name from the pass (there are several passes in Korea with the same name), and there are variants of the story, but the essence is the same:  tragic love, separation, and a difficult mountainous journey. 

            While ostensibly unfamiliar to most Americans, almost every band student in this country has encountered it.   The important band composer, John Barnes Chance, used the tune in his “Variations on a Korean Folksong,” performed by most school bands in America.   Recast for military band, it even served as the official march of the 7th Infantry Division in the US Army.   But, withal, a lyric from one variant of the song expresses it best:  “Just as there are many stars in the clear sky/There are also many dreams in our heart.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan