Korea has a wealth of beautiful children’s songs, of which these are two of the best known ones. Written in the 1920s, these songs are so widely known and loved by Korean children as they grow up it is part of the national soul of Korea. They are staples of children’s music textbooks, as well as the songs by which Korean expatriates remember their old home. Many professional singers have sung and released these songs because they are musically beautiful in their own rights. Korean people are in a sense blessed that they grow up learning such beautiful works of art at an early age.
Spring of My Old Home
Spring of My Old Home (고향의 봄)’s lyrics were written in 1925 by Lee Won Soo (이원수, 1912-1981) as an entry for a student poetry contest, while music was by the famous composer Hong Nan Pa (홍난파, 1898-1941). Over the years the song came to be loved by the Korean people to such an extent that it is practically the all time greatest children’s song of Korea. You wouldn’t be a Korean native if you didn’t know this song.
Its lyrics are about longing for the old home the narrator has left behind, a place deep in the mountains where blossoming flowers turn it into a palace all draped in rainbow colors, where flower mounds and bird nests are so adoringly beautiful, a dream of a place you would always hold dearest in your heart. It is an apt description of the old Korean villages as Korea has such a mountainous terrain. Chances are that one’s home is somewhere in or near the foot of a mountain range, or failing that, there must be at least one prominent in your vista. For millenniums the Koreans have lived in these mountainous surroundings working as farmers first and foremost, all along until about a hundred years ago. So the lyrics ring natural and true to them, and the gently flowing beautiful tune by Hong also hits home to their heart. The song is like a symbol of home to the national psyche, just like the song Furu Sato (ふるさと - 故郷, 고향) is to the Japanese, and When It’s Springtime in The Rockies is to the Americans in the mid west if you will.
Half Moon (반달) was written by Yoon Geuk Young (윤극영, 1903-1988), who was one of the pioneering composers of the early era of modern Korean music, both lyrics and music. The song is a depiction of a half moon that glides across the sky in its ever westerly path, conjuring up an image of a little boat carrying a bunny and a tree, as the moon is often described in Korean folklore (some people claim you can see them in the moon’s dark patterns if you squint your eyes in certain way:-).
It was an imaginative idea in itself but that is certainly not all there is to it. Yoon obviously wrote the lyrics hoping deep in his heart for a better future for the nation. He saw the Korea of his time as a helpless nation like a boat adrift on the vast ocean lost without a direction, as the country had lost its sovereignty under the rule of Japan.
Like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to help the nation break out of its hopeless drift through his songs. He composed an image of the little boat of a half moon lost on a perilous course with no clear direction, a metaphor of Korea of the time, and closed it with an upbeat note in the second verse, It is the Morning Star to help her find the way (샛별이 등대란다 길을 찾아라). Literal translation of that line is actually more like Take the Morning Star as the guiding light and find your way. It was a heartfelt and rather explicit admonition to the children of his poor, lost motherland. And happily for him and the Korean people, the nation at last found its right course and turned its destiny around.
I remember learning these songs when I was small. How it was so much fun to sing them in class with that vague, fuzzy idea in my head of a faraway place. I remember me and my classmates mistakenly singing 아기도 잘도 잔다 instead of 가기도 잘도 간다 (confused by similar pronunciation) and the teacher correcting us. Ah the good old early years of our lives.